The state will start planning how to connect Madison to Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities via passenger rail with $500,000 in development grants from the Federal Railroad Administration.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will receive a total of $2.5 million statewide for planning new Amtrak routes from the Corridor Identification and Development program, funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced Wednesday in a press release. While the money for Madison planning will go to DOT, it will help the city move forward on its own planning for an Amtrak station.
Specifically, the Corridor ID program will support the creation of new routes on the existing Hiawatha service line from:
Milwaukee to Madison to Eau Claire
Eau Claire to the Twin Cities
Milwaukee to Green Bay
Chicago via La Crosse to St. Paul
The funds will also help make improvements on the existing Milwaukee to Chicago line.
“It's a huge win for moving passenger rail forward in Wisconsin, including Madison,” said Liz Callin, a transportation planner for the city who oversees the Amtrak station project. “Having those routes being accepted into the corridor ID program is a crucial component, certainly for the Madison station development. This is a unique opportunity, and we're thrilled to see these efforts moving forward.”
The passage of the infrastructure bill in 2021 freed up historic levels of funding for a new intercity passenger rail service in Madison. In December 2022, the city started planning how to use that money and looking for a location for a future station.
Madison staff members are conducting a station study to help build the local stop on the corridor.
The city is considering six potential areas: near the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, downtown near Monona Terrace, on First Street and East Washington Avenue, on the near east side to the west of Fair Oaks Avenue, the site of the former Oscar Mayer plant, and lastly, near the Dane County Regional Airport.
Callin said she and other staff members have spent the last year diving into details and narrowing specific sites where a station could work. She hopes to present those to the public in January or February.
The city has budgeted money for that work, dubbed the station study, which is separate from the Corridor ID program but necessary, according to Callin. Neither can happen without the other.
“This is like a crucial milestone because, of course, you don't have a route to Madison, and we, of course, don't have the station,” Callin said. “There are all these pieces to this puzzle that we're putting together."
"We are working with WisDOT in supporting route development. It's a partnership," she said.
In combination with the other routes, this proposed expansion of the Hiawatha line, which currently operates only between Milwaukee and Chicago, is building out the route incrementally, Callin said. Now various communities will start fleshing out the route development process, with planning, design and engineering.
“The next piece would then be actually the construction,” Callin said.
As of now, Amtrak projects the initial trip times from Madison to Milwaukee will take one hour and 48 minutes, while the ride from Madison to Chicago will take three hours and 18 minutes.
No plans now for state funding
Madison tried to get high speed passenger rail in the city over a decade ago, a project that was ultimately killed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has been vocal about her support for bringing passenger rail service to the city despite pushback from Republican state leaders. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said there would be "no state funding" for the project last year.
Callin said, at this point, the city is not pursuing any state funding sources.
“One of the great things about this Corridor ID program is that it is a 100% federally funded program, which is extremely rare in transportation,” she said, explaining how there is no local match requirement. “Wisconsin is extremely successful in their application; they got all four of the corridors they applied for, and it's all fully federally funded. It’s just a great opportunity.”
Rhodes-Conway said in a statement that this funding from the infrastructure law is “an important step” in the process.
“The city is already working to identify an accessible station site that would meet operational needs and encourage economic development,” the mayor 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.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the federal grant money was awarded to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which is planning the new Amtrak routes.
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