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COVER YOUR TRACKS » Deciding Between Eau CLaire and La Crosse

Although Wisconsin officially adopted Connections 2030 in October 2009, the FRA is requiring all states, including Wisconsin, to adopt more formal state rail plans. The Wisconsin Rail Plan 2030 will build off the policies and issues described in Connections 2030 and include an assessment of the existing rail system, public financing details, and environmental evaluations. It will also pare down passenger rail route options from the 30 or so that the state is currently studying to three or four final choices by the end of this year – including the options for a Madison-to-Twin Cities route, which the FRA is also currently directing a study on.

The map included in Connections 2030’s final draft shows three potential routes connecting Madison to the Twin Cities. The “River Route” follows Amtrak’s current Empire Builder route – which Amtrak has already stated it will maintain – from Madison to Tomah to La Crosse, into Winona, through Red Wing, and into the Twin Cities. The Eau Claire Route goes straight from Madison to Eau Claire, then into the Twin Cities. While these two routes are considered by many to be the strongest options, a third route is also depicted: from Madison to Tomah to La Crosse, then over to Rochester and up to the Twin Cities.

To help make decisions on the potential routes as well as gather public input on passenger rail in West Central Wisconsin in general, WisDOT will hold a series of public hearings this fall. Exactly where and when those meetings will be has yet to be determined, but it’s likely they will be held in a similar fashion as the ones held when Connections 2030 was first announced. There will be an “open house” of sorts at a public venue and citizens will be encouraged to come in, look at any available data (perhaps in the form of charts, short presentations, etc.), then either write down their comments or verbalize their thoughts to an official recorder. Details, however, have yet to be announced. Look at the Make Yourself Heard box for more details, or visit VolumeOne.org regularly because we’ll do a blog post announcement the second the DOT announces the details.

Of course, the upcoming gubernatorial election will also impact the state’s rail plan. Milwaukee Mayor and leading Democratic candidate Tom Barrett backs passenger rail service, while Republican candidates Scott Walker, current Milwaukee County executive, and Mark Neumann, a former congressman, both oppose passenger rail service. At a more local level, Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls), Kristen Dexter (D-Eau Claire), and Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) have all declared support for a state rail plan. Both Eau Claire County and the City of Eau Claire have passed official resolutions in support of passenger rail service as well.

“We’re hoping that the facts will bear out and show Eau Claire is a potential route,” said City of Eau Claire Associate Planner and WCWRC Communications Chair Ned Noel, who believes a solid public turnout at the fall’s public information sessions could impact the state’s plan significantly. “If we can show WisDOT that there is a strong contingency of just normal folks that want to ride this thing, it will show that maybe Eau Claire is the way to go.”
Eau Claire City Manager Mike Huggins, also a member of the WCWRC, echoes Noel’s support for passenger rail in West Central Wisconsin.

“This is a critical transportation issue,” stated Huggins, pointing out that the Twin Cities 400, known for traveling from St. Paul to Chicago in 400 minutes, regularly stopped in Eau Claire between 1935 and 1963. “Getting it back is very important for economic growth not only for Eau Claire, but for all of Western Wisconsin.”

BONUS » A Totally Biased List of Reasons We Should Get It, and Not La Crosse

•  Minnesota describes Eau Claire as a “high demand corridor” – the MnDOT included a passenger rail route from Eau Claire in an approved rail plan for the state.

•  Our 4-county region is expected to grow 24% by 2030.

•  A stop on the Eau Claire route option, Hudson, Wisconsin (not to mention the entire St. Croix Region) is part of the fastest growing area of the state.

•  Minnesota’s State Rail Plan estimated Eau Claire’s annual demand at 5.7 million people, compared to La Crosse’s 2.9 million.

•  20 percent of the highway trips in the Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls metro areas are either going to, or coming from, the Twin Cities.

•  After one week of WISPIRG polling, Eau Claire already had more than 500 businesses and 1,200 residents “on board.”

•  The Eau Claire route would serve 11 universities and technical colleges. Modern students are driving less and less.

•  It’s reported that the Eau Claire route has more straight-aways than the meandering LaCrosse route, and would likely enable higher train speeds.

•  The stretch of I-94 from Madison to Eau Claire is widely considered the deadliest road in Wisconsin, backed up by accident statistics.

• There used to be service from Chicago to the Twin Cities through Eau Claire. If it was a priority back then, it’s even more important now.

• Eau Claire is the fifth fastest-growing city in Wisconsin.