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First of five Wisconsin passenger rail expansion projects could launch in 2024

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
December 12, 2023

Passengers who have been yearning for more railroad connections between Milwaukee and Minneapolis may get their wish by the middle of next year.

Additional Amtrak round-trip service between Chicago and the Twin Cities is one of five proposed passenger rail upgrades in Wisconsin that have reached the planning stage. Last week, the five proposals won federal planning and development grants of $500,000 each — a $2.5 million investment in all.

The five were among dozens announced across the U.S. under the Federal Railroad Administration’s  Corridor Identification and Development program, funded under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

Along with the addition of a daily train connecting Milwaukee and Minneapolis, the planning and development grants for Wisconsin cover:

Additional round-trips for the current Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service.A proposed extension connecting the Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Green Bay.Rerouting Amtrak’s current Milwaukee-Minneapolis service to include Madison and Eau Claire.Additional service between Eau Claire and St. Paul, Minnesota. 

 “This is a really big deal for us,” said Susan Foote-Martin, vice president of public relations for the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP). The 500-member organization has been campaigning for more passenger rail service in Wisconsin for years. 

“We’re looking to connect communities,” Foote-Martin told the Wisconsin Examiner Monday. “There’s an economic value [that can] come to communities that only passenger rail can bring to us.”

Currently one Amtrak train runs between Milwaukee and Minneapolis — the overnight passenger train, the Empire Builder, which travels between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. Instituting another daily train that travels the same route to the Twin Cities and back has been a long-time goal of the organization.

Current plans for the service call for a launch sometime in the first quarter of 2024, Foote-Martin said, running from Chicago through Milwaukee with stops in Columbus, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse. Projections have shown that the train could draw 125,000 riders a year, she said.

The five proposed projects represent the first major plans to improve passenger rail service in Wisconsin in more than a decade. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) announced Wisconsin’s share of the federal railroad grants last week, highlighting her vote for the 2021 infrastructure law that funded the grants. 

“Passenger rail helps people get to work and school safely, boosts tourism and recreation, and grows our local economies, and I am proud to deliver funding to help expand it in Wisconsin,” Baldwin said in a statement announcing the Wisconsin grants. 

Gov. Tony Evers, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and local government leaders in Green Bay, Eau Claire and Madison also praised the federal support for the expansion proposals. 

“Safe, reliable infrastructure is critical to the success of Wisconsin’s economy and workforce, and this federal funding is an important first step in improving the passenger rail system in Wisconsin and expanding our opportunities to serve more communities across our state,” Evers said in a statement Monday. “With these strategic connections, we can keep our state moving forward and keep building the 21st-century infrastructure Wisconsin needs to support a 21st-century economy and workforce.”

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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