October 17, 2016
– Maggie Angst, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-
After nearly four years of studying and talking about increasing passenger rail service between Chicago and Milwaukee, Amtrak and the Wisconsin and Illinois transportation departments are ready to hear from the public.
The agencies have scheduled a Milwaukee public hearing and two Illinois meetings in the coming weeks where citizens can weigh in on the proposal to boost the number of daily round trips on Amtrak’s Hiawatha line from seven to 10. The plan also calls for new railroad infrastructure, such as main tracks, side tracks and train signals, needed to support the additional trips.
Ridership on the Hiawatha Service has increased significantly in the past 15 years. Between 2001 and 2013, ridership nearly doubled, growing an average of 6% annually. The rail line also has the largest number of riders of any Amtrak service outside the East and West coasts, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation project website.
Many of the peak-period trains operate with few or no vacant seats, said Arun Rao, passenger rail implementation manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“Providing those additional trains will help spread out those peak riders and help intermodal connections, such as flight connections and city buses,” Rao said. “It provides more flexibility for people getting to those connecting trains or other modes of transportation and services.”
It is also expected to reduce highway congestion between the two cities.
“Everyone is aware of the very famous traffic in Chicago and the (Chicago-to-Milwaukee) highway corridor,” said Melanie Johnson, project manager for Quandel Consultants, the Chicago-based firm that is coordinating the project. “So we are trying to provide a robust alternative to that highway congestion by providing more round trips and more reliable service.”
Part of the process has been to complete an assessment documenting the environmental impact of the project and a plan outlining the operational and financial aspects. Those pieces were the first steps in making sure the project is eligible for federal funding from the Federal Railroad Administration, Johnson said.
The Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation sponsored the plan and will evaluate federal funding options to construct the new railroad infrastructure as funds become available.
The project, which depends on securing federal funding in addition to state and private matching funds, would cost approximately $150 million to $200 million, Johnson said.
A draft environmental assessment went out last week for public comment. Input from the upcoming sessions will be incorporated into the final report to Federal Railroad Administration by the start of 2017, Johnson said.
The public hearing in Milwaukee will be 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at Washington Park Senior Center, 4420 W. Vliet St., Milwaukee. The public meetings in Illinois will be 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 1 at Union Station, 500 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago; and 4-8 p.m. Nov. 2 at Glenview Park Center, 2400 Chestnut Ave., Glenview.
Original Publication: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel