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Changing tracks: Minnesota, Wisconsin swap roles for planning fast trains between Twin Cities and Chicago

For years, Wisconsin was a leader in the multi-state planning effort to develop a network of fast passenger trains fanning out from Chicago to the Twin Cities and other large Midwest urban centers.

Minnesota was barely at the table.

Suddenly, the roles have reversed.

Scott Walker
REUTERS/Darren Hauck
Scott Walker

Uncertainty is swirling around Wisconsin’s role, thanks to the intention of the state’s governor-elect, Scott Walker, to reject an $810 million federal grant to build out service linking Milwaukee and Madison. That leg, which would tie into the existing Amtrak line connecting Milwaukee and Chicago, is a critical link in the proposed, higher-speed rail route from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

Walker has called the Milwaukee-Madison project a boondoogle.

Meetings, studies go on
Yet the planning continues for the Milwaukee-Twin Cities portion of the route. And now it’s Minnesota that is pushing ahead.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been designated as the lead planner in selecting the preferred route from the Milwaukee to St. Paul. MnDOT has a $600,000 federal grant, matched by money from the two states, to do this work. 

The agency has been following through on plans to hold six open houses to update the public on its work. Four were held last week, at St. Paul’s Union Depot and in the Wisconsin cities of La Crosse, Eau Claire and Fond du Lac. The hearings are expected to wind up tonight in Madison, after a Monday night session in Rochester.

Another round of public meetings is likely early next year.

Chicago-based Quandel Consultants LLC is doing much of the current work for MnDOT. At the meeting in St. Paul, CEO Charles Quandel told the audience his firm evaluated 25 potential routes between the Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, has narrowed the list to 10 and is working to trim it to between three and five soon.

The 10 routes include Amtrak’s existing corridor, which does not go to Madison but instead cuts northwest to Portage and Tomah and then on to La Crosse, Winona, Red Wing and St. Paul. Two others also miss Madison, instead heading north from Milwaukee to Neenah and then generally west to Eau Claire/Chippewa Falls and St. Paul. The other seven go to Madison, including two that reach the Twin Cities via Rochester and Owatonna.

The Twin Cities-Chicago trains would operate six round-trips a day and clip roughly two hours from the time it takes Amtrak’s existing Empire Builder to make the journey. A new MnDOT study shows a favorable cost-benefit ratio for building the route.

Process taking years
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, an alliance of Amtrak and nine Midwest states that include Minnesota and Wisconsin, has been working off and on with the Federal Railroad Administration since 1996 to develop a 3,000-mile, 110-mile-an-hour hub-and-spoke passenger system centered in Chicago.

Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s passenger rail office, stresses the long-range nature of the proposal.
“These projects take years to do, as highway projects do,” he says.

So let’s just call this very long-range planning that is continuing no matter what Scott Walker says.

For more details, see MnDot’s website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/07/2010 - 08:53 am.

    While China builds infrastructure to take them into the 22nd century, conservatives want to take us back to 20th century infrastructure. Remember when we used to be the leaders and the innovators?

  2. Submitted by Willie Green on 12/07/2010 - 09:41 am.

    During the current decade, it is projected that global oil consumption will deplete traditional sources of relatively inexpensive petroleum, and fossil fuel production will have to shift to more costly, “unconventional” sources such as shale oils and tar sands. This will make airline and highway travel less affordable than we currently enjoy.

    Although passenger rail is often presented as an alternative to congested highway travel, it is actually a better competitive substitute for short-hop airline travel. And unlike automotive vehicles, the airlines cannot easily convert to alternative fuels as the cost of airline fuel increases.

    It is Wisconsin’s buisiness community who will suffer most from Scott Walker’s failure to recognize economic impact on business travelers. Kudos to Minnesota for surpassing Wisconsin on this issue.

  3. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 12/07/2010 - 05:05 pm.

    “These projects take years to do, as highway projects do,”–Dan Krom;
    Director, MnDOT/Pass.Rail Office

    “While China builds infrastructure to take them into the 22nd century, conservatives want to take us back to 20th century infrastructure. Remember when we used to be the leaders and the innovators?”–Alec Timmerman, comments

    Finally, folks are seeing the light of the future for High Speed Rail[HSR]. Let’s not plan the HSR for a decade away but for the long term 22nd Century. Make the HSR infrastructure truly modern. Three hundred MPH+ rail is already in two countries already. The US first gave the world the basis for modern railroad engineering and technology. Let’s move ahead where the others have gone.

    Wishy-washy political shortsightedness, lack of future economic vision, and fiscal timidity will ruin and inane political delaying tactics will be a detriment for all concerned.

    The present US air, land, or sea transportation infrastructures have slowly reached the overburdened proverbial breaking points. There are some who seemingly decry or complain against any sort of progress. No one individual or group has come stalwartly forward and said “enough is enough”! “We have to roll-up our sleeves and let’s get to work for the future!”

    In the Great Depression, massive long lasting public works projects were built. Money was found to do such with Government assistance. Jobs were created, taxes paid, and the nation recovered.

    In the 1950’s the Interstate Highway System was started. The country again flourish. The main minus to the Interstate System was the shortsighted vision of planners to think for the extended long term. But, the Interstates were built.

    Incorporating modern transportation engineering, environmental concepts, and multi-modal mass transit planning could have alleviated some of the burden problems we face today. However, there is hope; the US again can lead the world in transportation methods and usage.

    We all can’t travel by air in today’s aviation climate. Neither can we travel only by personal vehicular conveyances. Rail mass transit, IE–HSR, is the viable alternative for the long haul. If we all act now; the day will come for the HSR, 2-1/2 to 3 hour, transit from Mpls/St.Paul to Chicago’s Union Station. Will we see it in our lifetimes. I hope so! Minnesota can lead the way to such.

  4. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 12/08/2010 - 09:30 am.

    You want to get to Chicago….buy a $59 ticket on Southwest Airlines! True High Speed Rail (which the proposal is not…HSR is faster than 110 mph) comes at a cost of $20 million per mile….and does work for some countires. A better use of taxpayers money in this country (if we insist on going that way) is tax credits for Plugin/Hybird Vehicles….such as the one currently in place and I think recently proposed for extension. This comes from a study on the subject by several policy groups. Granted they look at it from an economics standpoint only…..but do insist plugins/hybrids are greener that any train.

  5. Submitted by John Wexler on 12/08/2010 - 11:29 am.

    110 max is too, too slow, lets start thinking faster!

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