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Wis. Rail Coalition fights for high speed rail though EC

Today the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition held a press conference to address the Minnesota Department of Transportation's final report analyzing possible high speed rail routes between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. As you may remember, last November, MinnDoT released a study naming the “Empire Builder Router” is the best option. This route has shiny new passenger trains running down the Mississippi river, passing into Wisconsin by way of La Crosse. Then the line goes over to Tomah and down through Portage and Milwaukee before high-speeding it all the way to Chicago. The route completely bypasses all of northwestern Wisconsin.

First and foremost, they say Wisconsin citizens were excluded from a review process that will have longterm consequences on our transportation system, despite the report’s stated requirement to fully involve the public.

At the conference, Rail Coalition co-chairman Scott Rogers said they’ve identified major flaws in MinnDoT’s report, which is hundreds of pages long and was funded and sanctioned by the Federal Railroad Administration. They’ve sent a letter to the FRA asking it to reject or revise the report.

First and foremost, they say Wisconsin citizens were excluded from a review process that will have longterm consequences on our transportation system, despite the report’s stated requirement to fully involve the public. (There were only two public meetings and both were in Minnesota.) Secondly, the report states the LaCrosse route would be cheaper to build than the Eau Claire route, but different and more expensive cost estimates where applied to the Eau Claire route. (The LaCosse estimate uses 14 feet of spacing between tacks while the EC estimate uses 30 feet of spacing.) Lastly, they say the report ignored findings that the La Crosse route would be stymied by a slowdown along 100 curvy miles the Mississippi River, where there also happens to be extra freight congestion, while the Eau Claire route could be upgraded to full speed for the entire trip.

On the speed issue, Eau Claire city councilwoman and Rail Coalition subcommittee chair Jackie Pavelski says the Eau Claire route is indeed faster. The MinnDot report claims the LaCrosse route is 4 minutes faster than the EC route, but a previous study found the Eau Claire route to be a full 22 minutes faster.

“Minnesota needs to back out of our state until Wisconsin is able to come to the table.” – Rail Coalition member Ned Noel

The stated purpose of this report was to boil 33 possible routes down to the best four or five options. However, Rogers says that, while the report starts out discussing 4-5 possibilities, the concluding pages actually pick a single winner in the La Crosse option. But even before the heavy focus on La Crosse, Rogers says the report scored most of the routes virtually identical as far as speed and population densities.

Now, since Wisconsin's Department of Transportation actually pulled out of the route study over a year ago, leaving it for Minnesota to complete on its own, one may wonder exactly what a volunteer coalition in Wisconsin has to say on the matter. Well, Ned Noel, Associate Planner with the City of Eau Claire and Rail Coalition member said that even if Wisconsin is not currently part of the process, it’s being frozen out of meaningful future involvement. He said, “Minnesota needs to back out of our state until Wisconsin is able to come to the table.”

Noel also said “the whole process was a complete debacle,” in that the final report did not follow the proper guidelines. He claims we really don’t know the entire cost of the LaCrosse route and the report “cherry picks” the data used to support it. Rogers also says the report is obviously looking to serve more of Minnesota, despite the Federal Railroad Administration's mandate of a bistate study. It’s a federal grant, he says, so until Wisconsin is ready to play a role, Minnesota needs to back off any decisions that affect us on a major level.

So according to the FRA’s review process, the Rail Coalition is submitting its six page letter asking the FRA to reject MinnDoT’s report. When asked about any possible legal action against the report’s validity, Rogers said there’s nothing to comment on, but they hope to find support in state representatives.

If you’d like to weigh in on the issue yourself, MinnDoT’s public comment period actually ends on Thursday (1-12-12). You can submit comments thusly:
    • Email: MWRRIPhase7@state.mn.us
    • Fax: 651-366-4248
    • Phone (leaving a recorded message): 651-366-3199
    • Mail: Minnesota Department of Transportation
                   Passenger Rail Office
                   Mail Stop 480
                   395 John Ireland Boulevard
                   St. Paul, MN 55155

by: Mike Paulus