Wisconsin, Illinois working on alternatives for expansion of Amtrak’s Milwaukee to Chicago Hiawatha service

Illinois opposed to certain aspects of current proposal

Amtrak train, courtesy of Shutterstock

Wisconsin and Illinois are now in talks to come up with alternatives to the planned expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha service after the Illinois Department of Transportation made known its opposition to certain aspects to the proposal.

The two states, along with Amtrak, have been considering a roughly $200 million rail-improvement project that would ultimately allow the Hiawatha service to expand from seven to 10 daily trips. The service moves passengers between Milwaukee and Chicago.

One major hangup has been opposition to a proposed two-mile siding, or “holding track,” next to the existing Union Pacific tracks in Glenview, Illinois as well as a three-mile siding through Lake Forest, Illinois.

Marc Magliari, a spokesman with Amtrak, said the tracks used by the Hiawatha service are also used by other passenger and freight rail lines. In order to allow for the Hiawatha service expansion while maintaining reliability, the freight trains need a place to move out of the way when the faster Amtrak trains come through.

However, residents and elected leaders in the two Illinois communities said the holding tracks present environmental and safety concerns, and have lobbied state officials to oppose their construction.

Omer Osman, acting secretary of IDOT, recently sent a letter to two state senators that states the department’s opposition to the expansion, specifically to the proposed holding tracks in Glenview and Lake Forest.

“IDOT will not agree to freight train holding tracks in either Glenview or Lake Forest and you have my commitment that IDOT will not be moving forward seeking federal support for this project,” Osman wrote in the letter, which is dated May 2.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the expansion project won’t happen.

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell confirmed the department is still interested at looking at other options that would allow the Hiawatha service to be expanded. These options, however, would need to omit the controversial holding tracks.

“The department is a strong supporter of passenger rail service on this line and will be working with the lead agency on the project, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, on other possible solutions to improve service,” IDOT said in a statement sent by Tridgell via email.

Tridgell said IDOT’s position does not mean it would actively oppose any federal grant applications that Wisconsin submits related to the expansion project.

Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for WisDOT, said the department was likewise aware of IDOT’s concerns with the expansion project.

“We are continuing to proceed with plans to increase frequencies with the Hiawatha service and are working with IDOT and the railroads to continue to do that,” he said. Rao added there weren’t any details yet on what exactly the alternative plans might look like.

Rao said there is no timeline the project is up against, in that it isn’t in danger of losing out on federal money or losing federal approvals.

Glenview has spent more than $500,000 in lobbying efforts to oppose the expansion project. Residents who are opposed to the project contend the new holding tracks would lead to freight trains sitting idle in the middle of the community, which would impact their overall health and safety.

“The holding tracks that were initially proposed would have created significant environmental and other impacts in our community as outlined at the March 2018 public forum attended by almost 2,000 concerned residents,” Glenview village president James Patterson said in a news release.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers made clear his administration’s support for expanding the Hiawatha line by including in his 2019-21 budget plan $45 million in bonding to go toward the project. The money would be used as matching funds for federal grants that would cover the remaining project costs.

Proponents of the Hiawatha line’s expansion point to its increasing popularity. For instance, earlier this year WisDOT announced the service had set an all-time record in calendar year 2018 of more than 858,000 passengers. This marks a 3.6% increase over the previous calendar year.

Magliari said the service in 2019 is trending above those ridership numbers from 2018. He said the current service level cannot sufficiently meet current demand.

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