High-Speed Rail Milwaukee

Wisconsin Offers Up Proposal for Rail Expansion

» Governor Jim Doyle proposes using stimulus money for Madison-to-Milwaukee line.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Wisconsin is to apply for $519 million in stimulus funds for the Milwaukee-Madison tin-hsr program, which will reactivate an abandoned freight line between the state’s biggest cities. Wisconsin joins the list of states gearing up for a part of the $8 billion in high-speed rail money that Congress approved last month. New York will ask for funds for a third track between Albany and Buffalo, Illinois is pushing improvements for the line between Chicago and St. Louis, Washington will work to improve the Cascades corridor between Portland and Seattle, and California will of course be angling for a huge percentage of the money for its already partially-funded Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line.

Wisconsin’s first priority will be connecting its two biggest cities, which currently lacks any kind of rail link. Trains running at up to 110 mph would run along the corridor in 1h07 six times a day, round trip. Meanwhile, the current Hiawatha Amtrak service between Chicago and Milwaukee would ramp up to ten trains a day from the seven currently offered.

Governor Jim Doyle (D) also suggested that the state would be pushing forward quickly with other corridors as soon as it could secure funding. The Chicago-to-Milwaukee line would be sped up to 110 mph for a cost of $419 million and provide an astonishing 17 round trips daily; a new corridor between Milwaukee and Green Bay would be activated at a cost of $421 million, with 7 trains daily; and a line from Madison to St. Paul, Minnesota would be constructed and upgraded for a cost of $456 million (in Wisconsin alone), for six trains daily.

This last corridor is one of the more important in the nation since it would connect with the Twin Cities, whose metro population is more than three million. Travel between Chicago and that area could expand significantly with faster trip times. But Minnesota, under a Republican governor, has been less active in pushing for rail improvements and as a result most of the planning for improvements has been on the Wisconsin side. That said, citizen and business groups in Rochester, Minnesota, a city of 85,000 in the southeast section of the state, are pushing to reroute current Amtrak services through their city on the way to St. Paul. Such a connection would require the construction of new track and acquisition of right-of-way, so it’s unclear whether the state will be able to develop a viable funding solution to that problem, or whether Minnesota will invest in rail at all.

But the news from Wisconsin is great news on all fronts – the state has developed a long-term vision for rail services there and has prioritized a corridor for federal stimulus investment. For a small state like Wisconsin, which already has good rail ridership and could see large increases with service improvements, $519 million seems a reasonable sum for which to demand from Washington. We’ll see in June what Secretary LaHood thinks.

5 replies on “Wisconsin Offers Up Proposal for Rail Expansion”

There’s no specific news story or big roll-out but I believe that North Carolina is also going to request tin-hsr funds.

The big ticket item is double-tracking the line from Greensboro to Goldsboro ($650 mn). About half of that mileage would be for the high speed line.


I’m concerned about the Madison terminus of the proposed service. As a student at UW-Madison a decade ago, I dreamed of being able to walk from campus to catch a train to Chicago and Milwaukee. The proposed alignment has the service stopping on the far east side of Madison at Truax Field (Dane County airport). This terminus would require a 20-minute bus or taxi ride from the downtown isthmus. The 1h07m running time being touted between Madison and Milwaukee would really be more like 1h30m from downtown Madison to Milwaukee’s Amtrak station if everything ran perfectly. In reality, it’s probably closer to a 2h trip considering transit from downtown Madison to the station and 10-15 minutes of transfer time.

The Madison-Milwaukee and Madison-Chicago routes are already served by two high-frequency, high-quality bus services (Badger and Van Galder last I checked), which depart from the Memorial Union on campus. If travelers have a choice of walking to the Union to catch a direct bus versus taking a city bus or taxi to a distant eastside station to transfer to an “accelerail” or “TIN-HSR” train service, they may just decide to stick with the bus.

Granted, it will be difficult to thread passenger service all the way downtown – lots of grade crossings and slow speeds – but there are two fantastic potential station sites once you get there. The existing station on West Washington Ave (former C&NW, I believe) backs up to the Kohl Center arena and Southeast Dorms (probably over 3,000 student beds) and could serve as the terminus. Another downtown station could be built underneath the Monona Terrace conference center, 2-3 blocks from the capitol in the heart of downtown. These two stations are located where the potential ridership is going to come from. Again, reaching downtown will be slow and require the creation of many Quiet Zones, but a one-seat train ride would trump a one-seat bus ride.

Madison does have terrible geography for good rail service along this corridor.

The solution I’ve seen proposed is to leave the high-speed station outside of town at the airport — the extra time to go downtown and back, plus reversing the direction of the train, would be deadly for the Minneapolis-Chicago service — but also build Dane County Commuter Rail.

This would mean that the trip from downtown would be a matter of changing trains at the airport station. A two-seat train ride would probably trump a one-seat bus ride. Especially if the commuter train was faster than a bus or taxi, which it should be if designed properly.

While I agree that bringing a train from Milwaukee to the Isthmus, then heading back out to the Eastside on the way to Minneapolis would be a time-consuming affair, I think the ridership potential between Madison-Milwaukee/Chicago is far higher than Minneapolis-Milwaukee/Chicago. Under this accelerail (“not quite HSR”) proposal, Madison and the UW campus will be a FAR larger source of ridership than Minneapolis. The only way to make Minneapolis-Chicago a route that requires high frequency is to have true HSR service on that corridor. If that were ever built, I could imagine an HSR station like Lyon-Satolas near the airport on the Eastside.

Therefore, I think the service concept is flawed if they’re going to extend every train from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. I could see something like an hourly service from Milwaukee to Madison in a decade with service every 2-3 hours to Minneapolis. In that case it would make more sense to run the train to the Isthmus first.

Good comments and discussion. I struggled with improving transit in Madison as a student and unfortunately had to leave for better job prospects. It still has a special place in my heart. Too bad Madison is just far enough off the “path” to make through service problematic. For trains originating and ending in Madison it would make the most sense to do that at Monona Terrace or W. Washington Ave. like the old days. As the commenter above noted – you need a one seat ride from campus without a long cab/bus trip to the airport. Neighborhood opposition will require low speeds in the city and will thwart any elevated options. A tunnel would be best, but its’ doubtful if such a small city warrants that expense. The federal money for HSR would be best spent for true High Speed at 220mph on the Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago route that serves areas with over 1 mil population, then Madison, Eau Claire and Green Bay/Fox Valley should be connected into it with 90 or 110mph and direct routed interoperable trains. For Madison, connections from Downtown to Milwaukee and a N-S line parallel to I-90 from IL to the Wis.Dells make a lot of sense. If businesses in the Dells were smart they would be advocating a commuter rail link from the Dane County Airport to the Dells and south through the Rock Valley to Janesville, Beloit and Rockford, IL. One train a day at bad times (Empire Builder) is currently a huge disservice to the tourism potential there.
Sadly, Madison has been lost in a pipe dream of E-W commuter rail (Transport 2020) that has inhibited any real action on improving transit in the city for the last 20 years. I love light rail and commuter rail and wish it was workable there, but what a city the size of Madison can and should realistically do now is to upgrade its excellent bus network with a few affordable BRT lines to take people around town quickly, like Eugene, OR. — and have speedy trains to get outside of the city!

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