Wisconsin-Minnesota passenger rail project receiving $31.8 million federal grant

Service will add round-trip between Twin Cities and Chicago

The Amtrak Hiawatha train at Milwaukee Intermodal Station. (Courtesy: WisDOT)

Last updated on October 1st, 2020 at 12:08 pm

A joint Wisconsin-Minnesota passenger rail project designed to enhance connectivity between the Twin Cities, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Chicago is to receive a $31.8 million federal rail grant, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced.

The extension project, formally known as Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) intercity passenger rail service, will add a daily round trip from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Chicago and points in between, including Milwaukee, along the existing Amtrak Empire Builder line that runs all the way to the Pacific Northwest. The TCMC service will be achieved through an extension of one of the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Amtrak Hiawatha service round trips.

The project is being awarded a Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) competitive grant from the Federal Railroad Administration. The money is for final design and construction of railroad improvements needed for the project, WisDOT noted in a news release.

Moreover, the grant is the final piece of federal support needed to implement this service. The states and Amtrak need to provide $21.2 million in matching funding in order to accept the award. For its part, Amtrak has contributed $5 million toward the grant match. The total cost of the project is $53 million.

The TCMC rail service is anticipated to begin in 2024.

“The expanded service provides a much-improved connection between the Midwest economic hubs of Minneapolis/St. Paul, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Chicago,” WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said in a statement. “Just as important is the enhanced service for residents in the many rural communities. They will have increased travel options, with better reliability and on-time performance.”

The project will increase the existing rail service along the Chicago to Twin Cities corridor from one to two daily round trips. The new round trip will have a shorter travel time and greater on-time performance and reliability for regional trips, according to WisDOT.

It will enable, for instance, an overnight business or personal trip to the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, or Chicago from mid-size and rural communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, something not possible with the current one-round-trip schedule.

“Amtrak contributed $5 million to match the grant for this project because it will greatly improve passenger rail service and freight operations in Wisconsin and Minnesota, better connect the Great Lakes states and contribute to the economic competitiveness of cities along the route,” Joe McHugh, Amtrak vice president of state supported services, said in a statement. “The development of corridors is an important part of our mission at Amtrak, where we have a history of success using the foundation of an interregional train such as the Empire Builder and adding round-trip segments to develop a corridor service.”

Earlier this year, FRA provided a $12.6 million grant for operating support to offset the cost of the first three years of service.

Planning for TCMC service began in 2012 when project partners requested Amtrak assess the feasibility of providing a state-supported second round trip intercity passenger train service between the Twin Cities and Chicago Union Station.

Amtrak completed its study in 2015, and its findings indicated favorable ridership and revenue projects. This provided the premise for a more detailed study of the proposed service.

WisDOT is also working with its counterpart in Illinois and Amtrak to add more round trips to the Hiawatha service. The department earlier this year sought public input on the proposed Muskego Yard bypass project, which is one of several projects that would allow Hiawatha to expand to 10 daily trips. The Muskego Yard is a railyard location in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Last year, WisDOT was also awarded a separate $25.7 million grant to purchase new passenger rail cars for use on the Hiawatha service. The new cars will add seats to the Hiawatha and cut costs related to its operation.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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