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Passenger rail must get back on track in Wisconsin

Renewed plans for passenger rail service to Madison and other Wisconsin cities are encouraging, though we’ve been disappointed by similar promises before. Fingers crossed that this time will be different.

Amtrak recently published a map showing new high-speed rail lines connecting communities across the country. Locally, Madison would land a station with easy access to Eau Claire, Green Bay, the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.

This isn’t the first time that officials have dangled fast and convenient passenger rail connections. A decade ago, Democratic state and federal officials announced a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. Lots of potential travelers got their hopes up, only for Republican Gov. Scott Walker to reject more than $800 million in federal funding for the project.

Then in 2014, a group of rail enthusiasts floated a route between Madison to Chicago. They hoped to raise private sector support to pay for it. The dream floundered again.

Nothing is guaranteed this time, either. Amtrak’s map is a vision of what could happen by 2035, not what will happen. Hearings and conversations about where rail should go must proceed. Then public officials will face the hard work of figuring out how to pay for it all.

Amtrak published the map partly in response to President Joe Biden’s proposal to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure and other programs. The proposal includes $85 billion to improve and expand the nation’s rail network. It would be a great start, but only a start.

America lags far behind much of the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to passenger rail. Catching up will be expensive, but the benefits could be tremendous.

Rail travel can be more efficient than cars and reduce congestion. It also generates less greenhouse gas emissions than road vehicles and planes. Rail travel can reduce the need to build expensive new highways. Trains are safer than driving. They can be a convenient, affordable option for business and leisure travelers.

New rail lines could carry freight, too. Connecting Madison to a speedier national rail network would make this region even more attractive to economic development.

Most trips on Amtrak now are slower and more expensive than by car, especially if it’s a family trip. As long as that’s the case, train travel will be a tough sell to Americans. Yes, rail offers other benefits, such as not being behind the wheel. But it has downsides, too, such as not having a car at your destination.

A sweet spot must be found where trains are faster than driving and cheaper than flying. Hitting it will require high-speed routes, new investment and lines. Buildout must focus on modern rail technology, not expanding the old model.

Amtrak has provided a vision worth pursuing. Maybe that starts with a massive infrastructure bill. Maybe it’s through some other funding. Wherever the money comes from, let’s not allow the dream to end in disappointment again.

Wisconsin State Journal

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