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Madison tried to get high speed passenger rail in the city over a decade ago. Now, it’s taking a different approach.

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. As the city once again begins preparations for an Amtrak station in the city, it’s taking a different approach.

“I can say with confidence that Madison wants passenger rail service. This is something we have waited for for a long time,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said Wednesday at the city’s first community meeting to hear recommendations on the location of an Amtrak station. “In many ways we are better positioned than ever to bring Amtrak to Madison.”

With historic levels of funding available for a new intercity passenger rail service in Madison —  with $66 billion allocated for rail improvement projects from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — Amtrak has identified Madison as a connection on a future Hiawatha Service extension, the rail line connecting Chicago and Minneapolis. 

The corridor between Chicago and the Twin Cities has been named the most important part of the Midwest for Amtrak’s future growth, said Philip Gritzmacher, a planner in the city’s department of transportation.

In the past, the annual federal budget has typically been $2 billion for rail improvement, Gritzmacher said.

“It's the right time for Madison to strike if you're going to see this service,” he added.

Location, location, location

At the city’s kick off meetings for the passenger rail station study Wednesday — one of which was in person and the other virtual for a total of nearly 500 people in attendance — the city began the process of identifying a location for a future station.

It is considering six potential areas: near the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, one 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. 

Each location offers its own unique tradeoffs. 

Some at Wednesday’s in-person meeting voiced concerns of bringing the station downtown or to the UW campus where things are already congested. Others thought putting the station further outside the downtown area could pose limitations on who and how residents could reach the station.

Amtrak representatives at Wednesday’s meeting noted potential obstacles, like the “geometric challenges” the First Street site would post. Alternatively, the near east side has a straight stretch of track that would better suit a train’s movements.

Rhodes-Conway was aware of the strong opinions from the community in the room and urged patience.  

“I know there's some very strong feelings out there about where the station should be, and there are pros and cons to the locations that have been identified… but at the end of the day we have to pick a station location that works for Amtrak and that works for the Federal Railroad Administration,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I'm sort of overwhelmed with how much interest there is in this process and in bringing Amtrak to Madison. I hope we can turn all of you into advocates when we need that, either with the federal government or state government, and I hope that you will stay engaged in this process.”

History and funding

A 2021 Amtrak report recommended starting with three to four trips between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago on the Hiawatha extension and in the future extending to the Twin Cities. 

Key to making it happen is federal financing. 

“To make all this possible is federal funding, so we need to get prepared for federal funding. That's really what this effort helps move towards,” Gritzmacher said of the rail study, which he is hopeful can move quickly. “This is the first step in something that could be much, much, much bigger.”

The study is a way for the city to demonstrate its commitment to bringing Amtrak here, he said, and will determine a preliminary program for a modern intercity passenger rail station including waiting areas, parking, platform size, maintenance and crew accommodations. The hope is to apply in June with a complete analysis and site recommendation.

The city is applying to enter into the federal Railroad Administration Corridor Identification and Development Program, which would help provide federal funding for the planning and implementation of the Hiawatha extension.

The city will evaluate station locations based on criteria and begin to narrow the field in the coming weeks, with a goal of having fewer options for the next public meeting in February. 

Gritzmacher hopes the city can select a recommended station site and prepare a conceptual plan by the spring, before publishing a station analysis report with final recommendations. The criteria for a site is:

  • Rail operations, where a train would be able to make turn movements, as well as travel times to access stations
  • Site size and configuration, such as platform and track size, parking availability and the ability to expand
  • Multimodal connectivity, like connection to bus rapid transit, vehicle access and bike connectivity
  • Site ownership/control
  • Land use and development, such as equitable development, neighborhood compatibility and tourism infrastructure 
  • An assessment of environmental impacts, like community and traffic effect and known contamination

The study is a crucial step when applying for federal dollars and is a different approach than how the city considered rail travel in 2010, according to then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.

“It's encouraging that it seems like we've got another chance at this,” Cieslewicz said in an interview. “I like our chances.”

Cieslewicz pushed bringing train travel to the city 12 years ago and saw a Madison rail station as a catalyst for a much larger vision. Set to be at the Department of Administration building on East Wilson Street, he hoped the spot would be near a new public market with a new hotel to serve the convention center and a bike parking facility.

The city came close to that vision in 2010, when $810 million in federal money was earmarked for a Madison to Milwaukee line. But a centerpiece of Walker's campaign for governor was a pledge to take those dollars and use it for roads and bridges instead. The U.S. Department of Transportation ultimately redirected the money to high-speed rail projects in other states.

“I still have some PTSD over this,” Cieslewicz said. “Clearly Walker just killed it. What's different between then and now is that (in 2010), this was actually real money set aside to build the program. The feds had committed to building this line, and the money was already there. It was fully funded.”

Now, the city is working backward from what it did in 2010 — making a plan before applying for funding. Otherwise, not a lot has changed with the project, Cieslewicz said.

“They're doing it the opposite way, which, frankly, makes more sense. They need the station location to be approved by Amtrak before they can even go ahead with it,” he said. “Most of the issues that we're raising are nothing new, except that there's been development in the last 10 years, so, obviously, things look different.”

The former mayor is still an advocate for putting the station downtown, but he also thinks the former Oscar Mayer site is a good contender with plenty of new development in the area — that wasn’t an option back in 2010. 

“I think downtown is where most people want to be,” Cieslewicz said, steps from the Monona Terrace or a block from the state Capitol building. “Even if Oscar Mayer is attractive in other ways, it's not going to be a destination for most folks. They're still going to have to get on a bus or some other form of transportation to get to where they want to go.”

Community member Kevin Horvath said in an email to the Cap Times said in an email to the Cap Times that he had to pick himself up off the floor after hearing about the potential of finally having access to train travel in Madison. 

“We've seen some of the most insane, worst driving that competes with any large U.S. city,” he said of him and his wife. “So, the prospect of a new intercity passenger rail service in Madison excites us.”

He added, “I do not need to attend a meeting. To whom do I send an email with my yea vote?” 

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