A passenger train hasn’t been seen in Madison since 1961, when the last North Western Railway train left for the city for Chicago. In more recent history, a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee was set to kick off in 2010, until former Republican governor Scott Walker nixed the plan after a decade of work.
The plan to bring a passenger rail to Madison was dormant until last year, when Amtrak released a nationwide plan for expansion. That plan listed Madison as a critical point on the rail network’s Hiawatha line, which connects Chicago to Milwaukee.
Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation, meaning that while they are privately managed, they receive state and federal funding for their projects.
That plan, coupled with the passing of the federal Infrastructure Bill which included $66 billion for passenger rail improvements and expansion, reignited the plan to bring passenger rail to Madison.
Just under 100 people met in the Madison Municipal Building last night to share their excitement, and concerns, over building an Amtrak passenger rail station in Madison.
The in-person meeting, coupled with a virtual meeting that drew over 300 people, was the beginning of the planning stage on where to build the station. At the meetings, city and Amtrak officials asked the public to submit their thoughts on which of the six potential sites would be best for a station.
City and Amtrak officials have narrowed it down to six locations across the city that could fit a passenger rail station, each with their own pros and cons.
The former Oscar Mayer plant is ripe for development, but is a ways away from the heart of the city. Downtown near Monona Terrace would fix that problem, but is also already crowded. The Dane County Regional Airport has the space, and could help people get directly to the airport, but transportation options once you get off the train are limited. University Ave near the UW Madison Campus is great for students, but more limited for everyone else. The area around First Street and East Washington could work, but the curving road could pose an issue. And finally, there are already tracks along Fair Oaks Avenue on the near east side, but again, it’s not in the heart of the city.
Carolyn Seboe is a consultant with HNTB, the firm hired to help determine the best location. She says the initial six areas identified for a potential station are not exact locations.
“These are broad areas where we want to initially screen at a higher level so that we can start to narrow some of the areas where we want to look at in the city of Madison, then start to find some specific site locations, so actually looking at where the platform would be placed and other inter-city rail facilities,” Seboe says.
The city will study these locations, along with the public’s comments, over the next few months to narrow it down to just two or three, and make a final decision by April of next year.
There are several important things that are taken into account when deciding the best site for a station, such as room for a 700 foot long platform, proximity to public transport, and pedestrian access. But as Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway reminds everyone, the final location must be feasible for the ones actually providing the trains.
“I know that there are some very strong feelings out there about where a station should be,” Rhodes-Conway says, “but at the end of the day we have to pick a station location that works for Amtrak and works for the federal railroad administration. We cannot identify that is not going to work for them, or that would jeopardize our ability to get into the corridor development program.”
Building a station is just the first step in the process, says Philip Gritzmacher, Madison’s transportation planner, because building the station does not guarantee passenger rail coming to Madison. That, Gritzmacher says, is up to the federal government.
“(That is) a really big piece to (this), that is the corridor identification program,” Gritzmacher says. “That is going to open up later this month, and that’s the key to everything. That program is how we get federal funding. What we are doing tonight, all the work we are doing, really helps us progress towards that. We want to really show the federal government that we are serious about wanting passenger rail in Madison, and identifying a passenger rail station is a good way to get there.”
Some members of the public last night listed concerns about equity, the environmental impact, and use of fences at the potential station. But most in attendance at last night’s meeting were excited to see passenger rail come to Madison. That includes District 8 Alder Juliana Bennett, who says that she’s surprised Madison doesn’t already have a rail.
“We need a train! I don’t know why… it’s really frustrating that Republicans hate trains for no reason, but we really need a train that comes to Madison, it’s ridiculous at this point that we don’t have one,” Bennett says.
The city will hold two more public information meetings on the location of a rail station
You can find more information about the rail station study, and where you can send your comments, on the transportation page of the city of Madison’s website.
Meanwhile, former Governor Scott Walker took to Twitter to give his thoughts on the project, saying, “This is a stupid idea.”
Photos courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT Flickr