High-speed rail puts La Crosse, Eau Claire at odds (UPDATE)
Eau Claire and La Crosse are competing to be first on the high-speed rail route between Madison and the Twin Cities.
The fact that Eau Claire is even in the discussion is a good sign, said Eau Claire route supporter and state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls.
Those such as Bob Fisher, secretary of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers and a supporter of the La Crosse route, say the discussion should be over.
“By all logic, the La Crosse route has been chosen already,” Fisher said. “How many times do you keep going back and counting votes? We feel we’re at a point where the time is right to move on.”
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation on Wednesday released Connections 2030, a broad plan of goals for state transportation systems in the next 20 years. High-speed rail is now part of the equation, but the plan offers no decision on which route trains should take from Madison to the Twin Cities.
Kreitlow added an amendment to the state’s 2009-11 budget requiring WisDOT conduct a cost and feasibility study of sending the line north along the Interstate 94 corridor to Eau Claire.
“Our highest priority has just been getting equal mention,” Kreitlow said. “For that reason, we consider the WisDOT plan a real victory, because we’re getting a thorough look at this route.”
But that takes away from planning for the La Crosse route, which was identified in the 1990s as part of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, said James Hill, coordinator of the La Crosse-area Empire Builder High Speed Rail Coalition.
“The Minnesota (Department of Transportation) has already articulated they’re working on a statewide plan for rail, and the river route is part of that plan,” he said. “It creates an obvious point if one state is very heavily looking at a route already.”
But Minnesota is not sold on the river route, which would run along the Mississippi River from La Crosse to the Twin Cities with a possible connection to Rochester. In fact, Dan Krom, MnDOT’s director of the Office of Passenger Rail, said there could be factors working against the route.
“We already have an issue with alignment through Rochester,” he said. “If we wanted to get high-speed rail through there, we might have to build a straight line from Rochester to the Twin Cities, which would take years of planning, studies and land acquisition.”
Minnesota likely will not complete its study on preferred routes until late summer, Krom said.
The WisDOT study weighing the Eau Claire and La Crosse routes might not be done until spring, Hill said. WisDOT officials were unavailable to confirm the timeline before deadline Thursday.
The mix of plans, options and studies could hurt the state’s chances to get planning money from the nearly $8 billion President Barack Obama set aside for high-speed rail projects.
“We can lose this opportunity fighting over whether deck chairs are going to face aft or forward,” Fisher said. “There are a lot of states out there trying to get their hands on this money, and if they’ve got plans in place, we’re going to lose it if everybody’s bickering about where this thing goes.”
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative’s original rail plan calls for high-speed rail spurs to the Eau Claire area from both the Twin Cities and Green Bay. Fisher said Eau Claire never was left out of planning, but it was a mistake for Kreitlow to push for attention so soon.
But Kreitlow said his region’s West Central Rail Coalition has spent for more than a decade studying and discussing the benefits of a Madison to Eau Claire connection. He said he’s not trying to compete with La Crosse, but he wants equal consideration.
The WisDOT study Kreitlow requested has created competition.
Hill recently formed the Empire Builder High Speed Rail Coalition to encourage a connection to La Crosse. He said he knows cost, environmental and ridership analyses will be the deciding factors, but cheerleading can’t hurt.
“Whatever study is taken up, La Crosse is going to have better success the sooner rail comes this way,” he said. “How much prudence is there in pulling away from what would be a good business decision?”