Wisconsin Committee Mulling Rail Funding Increase

A Wisconsin legislative commission is posed to vote on a request by the governor to spend $45 million more to increase Amtrak service.

Gov. Tony Evers has proposed the additional funding to be used to pay for three more daily roundtrips of the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service and another train that would operate between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

The funding request is before the budget committee, which is considering several requests from Evers, including some pertaining to highway funding.

Wisconsin currently funds seven Hiawatha roundtrips. Service between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, is provided by the Empire Builder, a long-distance train operating between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, Oregon.

Wisconsin rail advocates have long desired another train to supplement the Empire Builder, which they say is prone to delays, particularly eastbound.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers has said some Hiawatha Service trains are now standing room only during peak travel periods.

WisARP said it would be less expensive to add more trains than to attach an additional rail car or two to existing trains, because during slow periods those extra cars would be empty but still heavy.

Arun Rao of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said his agency is talking with its counterparts in the Illinois Department of Transportation and the host railroads of Hiawatha Service about how to expand capacity in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

A proposal to add passing sidings in north suburban Chicago drew fierce opposition and IDOT recently said it would no longer support creation of sidings to enable freight trains to get out of the way of Amtrak and Metra trains.

“We would also be looking at incremental improvements. If we did a smaller subset of infrastructure, could we move up to an eighth round trip, and then ninth, and then tenth?” Rao said.

The funding for the proposed additional Chicago-Twin Cities train is needed to qualify for federal grants to help pay to develop the service.

WisDOT said that train could be operating within three to four years.

The committee considering the governor’s requests is controlled by Republican legislators whereas Evers is a Democrat.

There have already been conflicts in the legislature over other transportation spending as well as the overall state budget.

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