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Freight rail work fails to get on track

By Paul Snyder

Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. will struggle to improve the state’s freight rail service until it gets money for track upgrades, which will be difficult to do until the company improves service.

“It’s a chicken-egg thing,” said state Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Green Bay, and a member of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance. “I’ve heard numerous complaints about service issues with freight, and it’s easy enough to say, ‘We promise you’ll get better service if you give us millions,’ but they’re going to have to make a pretty good case for that.”

That is the case the rail company is trying to make. Freight tracks in the state can support 263,000-pound cars, while the federal track standard is for 315,000-pound cars, said Ken Lucht, community development manager for Wisconsin & Southern, which is based in Milwaukee and is contracted by the state to maintain the freight track network. Weaker tracks mean slower trains, he said, and that leads to congestion on the tracks and shortfalls in service.

The rail company this week announced it is seeking $90 million in federal stimulus money to upgrade three sections of rail lines in southern Wisconsin.

Lucht said the company had many more projects on its to-do list when Wisconsin & Southern sought stimulus money in 2008. The company did not receive stimulus money, he said, so it whittled its list to three major lines.

“These projects would take 36 months to complete, provide hundreds of jobs to state contractors and decrease fuel consumption by about 500,000 gallons per year,” Lucht said. “We’re extremely disappointed these projects haven’t received attention yet.”

All told, Wisconsin & Southern has more than $400 million worth of upgrades to do on Wisconsin’s freight rail lines, Lucht said. But the $90 million for three track segments should boost service.

State officials are uncertain if the projects will receive stimulus money. John Anderson, spokesman for Joint Committee on Finance co-chairman state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said he thinks the stimulus money for transportation money is spoken for.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said she does not know if transportation money is available for freight rail projects.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, freight rail projects could qualify for stimulus grants made available last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation, but the application deadline was Sept. 15. Wisconsin & Southern did not apply.

If the company cannot get federal stimulus money now, Lucht said, it will wait for a second federal stimulus package or try to get money from future state budgets.

The company better hope for stimulus money, Montgomery said, or Wisconsin & Southern will have to get in a long line of people and projects awaiting state money.

“They can ask us,” he said. “Maybe around 2030, they should be in good shape to get some of it.”

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