Wisconsin to receive $2.5M to study feasibility of passenger rail expansion

Corridors being looked at include connections to Madison, Green Bay and the Fox Valley

Travelers wait on the platform of the Amtrak station in Milwaukee, Wis.
Travelers wait on the platform of the Amtrak station in Milwaukee, Wis. J. Stephen Conn/FLICKR (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Wisconsin is set to receive $2.5 million in federal funding to study the expansion of passenger rail, including routes connecting to the state’s three biggest cities.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin made the announcement Wednesday, saying five different potential rail corridors will each receive $500,000 in planning and development grants. That money comes from a U.S. Department of Transportation program, funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The corridors that will be evaluated include: a line from Milwaukee to Green Bay; a line connecting Milwaukee to Minneapolis, Minn., through Madison and Eau Claire; a line connecting Eau Claire to St. Paul, Minn.; a line running through La Crosse that connects Chicago and St. Paul; and improvements to Amtrak’s existing Hiawatha line that runs from Milwaukee to Chicago.

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Madison, Green Bay, the Fox Valley and Eau Claire were identified by the state Department of Transportation as communities that could benefit from the expansion of passenger rail in the agency’s 2050 rail plan, released earlier this year.

In a statement, Baldwin said expanding passenger rail would help Wisconsinites get to work and school safely, boost tourism and recreation and help grow local economies.

“I am proud to deliver funding to help expand it in Wisconsin,” she said. “I voted for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to move our economy forward and get Wisconsinites where they need to go efficiently and safely, and I am excited to see these plans for passenger rail move forward.”

Despite federal support, new passenger rail lines face obstacles to becoming reality

While the funding helps begin the process of potentially expanding passenger rail in Wisconsin, making those lines a reality is still a long way away, said Terry Brown, former vice president of public relations for the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers.

He said the state will not have to match funding while it works to identify the feasibility of each of the five corridors, but to make the projects a reality, state money would likely be needed.

“Somewhere along the line, the state of Wisconsin is going to have to come up with a match,” Brown said. “Some money is going to have to come from some Wisconsin entity to match what’s going to be going on.”

That’s where expanding passenger rail in Wisconsin could get tricky, he said.

Connecting Milwaukee to Madison by rail has been discussed and debated at the state level for years. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said last year he would not support using any state funding for a train connecting the two cities.

This map details possible Amtrak expansions in the Midwest, including potential connections to Madison and Green Bay
This map details possible Amtrak expansions in the Midwest, including potential connections to Madison and Green Bay. Photo courtesy of Amtrak

Local officials support bringing rail to their cities

Even so, local officials in Madison, Green Bay and the Fox Valley have been vocal in their support for expanding passenger rail to their communities.

In a statement Thursday, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said the funding for feasibility studies into rail expansion was “an important next step” toward bringing a train to Madison.

“The city is already working to identify an accessible station site that would meet operational needs and encourage economic development,” she said. “Our hope is that a new Madison Amtrak station would become a dynamic destination woven into the fabric of our vibrant city, and that rail service will better connect us to our neighbors in Milwaukee, Eau Claire and beyond.”

Similarly, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich said Thursday that he was encouraged to learn about the federal money going toward studying the feasibility of connecting Milwaukee and Green Bay.

He said the process will help determine the best locations for train stations throughout northeast Wisconsin, as a passenger train would include stops in the Fox Valley.

“When a lot of people think about rail service, for obvious reasons, they think Green Bay to Milwaukee. But I think the everyday value of having passenger rail service is more meaningful between Green Bay and Fond du Lac, and all the communities in between,” Genrich said. “If this region continues to grow, which I think we all want it to and expect it to, we’re going to need additional modes of transportation and I think passenger rail is just a really vital piece of that puzzle.”