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Citizens group wants rail project on fast track

Paul Snyder
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A Fox Valley citizens group faces a difficult task convincing state lawmakers to pry money from highway projects for a passenger rail spur connecting Milwaukee to Green Bay.

“Without a decent rail connection, we’ll end up as an economic backwater,” said Frank Ingram, a principal member of the NEWRails group. “We just want to kick some people’s backsides and see something happen.”

But kicking will not accomplish much if the money isn’t there.

“We still have to identify a source of revenue for projects we have planned for the next two years,” said state Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover. “There’s a reason we have long-range plans for projects, and a lot of it has to do with a shortage of money.”

It might take 10 years before the Wisconsin Department of Transportation even starts work on the Milwaukee to Green Bay spur, Ingram said. He said members of his group want the work to start sooner.
NEWRails formed just two months ago to promote passenger rail and already has 850 members, Ingram said.

“There’s no particular reason why you couldn’t get (a Green Bay spur) running in an 18-month or two-year period,” he said.

Freight tracks exist between Milwaukee and Green Bay and can accommodate trains at up to 80 mph. Ingram said the state could seek federal money to get trains moving north and south between the cities before upgrading the tracks for high-speed trains, which can reach 110 mph.

But Chris Klein, WisDOT executive assistant, said no environmental assessments have been performed on the Green Bay spur and the state cannot seek federal money until it has a plan in place for the project.

NEWRails member David Schwengel, a former track repairman for Chicago & North Western Railroad and former citizen member of Milwaukee Transportation Partners LLC, estimated the track upgrades would cost $125 million.

According to WisDOT’s most recent estimates in 2002, it would cost $1.86 billion to create high-speed rail from Chicago to Milwaukee with spurs to Green Bay and St. Paul, Minn.

The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a multistate effort to establish a high-speed rail network, is picking up steam, and Gov. Jim Doyle committed $80 million in state money to be a part of the effort. Plans are under way for a $500 million passenger rail line between Madison and Milwaukee, which could be running in three years if the state receives federal money for the project this year.

WisDOT maps show potential rail lines extending to La Crosse and Minneapolis from Madison as well as a northern route from Milwaukee to Green Bay. State Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, also is lobbying for a spur from Madison to Eau Claire.

But the sequence of construction leaves several cities between Milwaukee and Green Bay in the dark for too long, Ingram said.

Yet short of private donations or massive federal grants, Holperin said, the state cannot put up the money for a massive passenger rail project in the next two years.

“Our focus is still on highways,” he said. “I think an awfully convincing argument would have to be made to shift that money that the roads need so badly to rail, and I’m not so sure it can be made.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to convince people there’s a way to pay for all this. It’s all about the money.”

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