Funding Set for Chicago-St. Paul Study

Government officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota have approved funding for a study of a second passenger train between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

The funding is being provided by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority of Minnesota, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission.

MinnesotaThe Minnesota Department of Transportation will assume the role of technical lead in the study, although it will work with its counterparts in Wisconsin.

The proposed service would use the route of Amtrak’s existing Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

An earlier Amtrak study estimated that a second roundtrip on the Chicago-Twin Cities route could attract more than 155,000 people.

The Empire Builder now carries more than 100,000 annually between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota.

A second Chicago-St. Paul train is not expected to begin operations until three to four years from now.

The 2015 Amtrak study called for a train of two coaches, a snack coach and a cab car coach along with one locomotive.

The Minnesota-Wisconsin study is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete and cost $600,000.

The Ramsey County agency, which owns St. Paul Union Depot, is fronting $300,000 of that cost with Wisconsin expected to pay for the other half. The Minnesota Commission is putting up contingency money.

Although Wisconsin officials are willing to participate in the study, it is not clear if the Badger State will agree to help fund the Chicago-Twin Cities service.

Shortly after he took office in 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker killed a program to extend rail passenger service from Milwaukee to Madison.

WisDOT passenger rail implementation Manager Arun Rao said Walker favors a focus on existing rather than new services.

Wisconsin officials are working with the Illinois Department of Transportation to expand by three roundtrips the existing Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service.

Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota transportation department’s passenger rail office, said that one way to implement additional service to the Twin Cities might involve extending an existing Hiawatha Service train.

Depite the uncertain participation of Wisconsin, Krom said he was encourarged because “they [Wisconsin officials] are at the table with us, are an equal partner and are moving forward.”

The study may also address how funding for the train will be worked out. Rao said a good model might be that of the Hiawatha Service in which Wisconsin contributes 75 percent of the operating funds and Illinois pays the other 25 percent.

Implementation of a second Chicago-St. Paul train will also hinge on whether the proposal can win federal funding to cover most of the capital costs.

“There’s a lot of different tentacles to adding a second train,” Krom said noting that bureaucracies and tight regulations are among the challenges that must be addressed.

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