Amtrak projects move forward in Milwaukee

Despite the USDOT yanking most of a large grant, the city moves forward on building projects to enhance Amtrak service

Transportation Management News Journal-Sentinel December 06, 2011
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Milwaukee’s state transportation officials are going ahead with two building projects to upgrade Amtrak service even after the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) took back most of a federal grant to fund the projects, according to the Journal-Sentinel.


The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WISDOT) wants lawmakers to approve $5 million to design a maintenance base, now under construction, that will service new Hiawatha Line trains from Milwaukee to Chicago.


At the same time, transportation officials have redrawn plans for rebuilding the passenger train concourse at downtown Milwaukee's Amtrak-Greyhound station.


The federal government originally agreed to pay for the temporary maintenance base and a new $60 million maintenance base in Madison, as part of an $810 million stimulus grant to extend the Hiawatha to Madison at 110 mph, the first step in a broader Midwestern network of fast, frequent trains. But U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rescinded all but $2 million of the grant after newly elected Gov. Scott Walker refused to spend it on the high-speed rail line.


Walker's administration subsequently tried and failed to land $213.3 million for Hiawatha upgrades, including much of the maintenance base cost.


Now, state officials are looking at options for the maintenance base site closer to the train station to avoid track upgrade costs. John Oimoen, state passenger rail chief, said an environmental study is comparing two sites: one just southwest of the station on land owned by the city and Canadian Pacific Railroad; and a privately owned site 1.5 miles to the west.


WISDOT has suggested paying the planning costs from a budget surplus in the state transportation fund. If the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee agrees Wednesday, Oimoen said the state would choose a site by spring, then use the $5 million for a yearlong planning process, with a goal of starting construction in 2013 and opening the base in 2014.


Although neither the maintenance base project nor the reconstruction of the passenger concourse has an official price tag, state officials say both are expected to cost less than earlier estimates. But both will require the state to spend at least some of its own money on work that at one time would have been covered by the massive federal grant.


The passenger concourse construction work would focus on the area at the east end of the station where passengers get on and off trains from both the Hiawatha and Amtrak's long-distance Empire Builder line.


State officials have been pushing to rebuild that structure, also known as the train shed, to comply with federal rules for access to the disabled, as well as current fire safety codes. Earlier estimates set the cost at $20.4 million, which would have been covered by the federal grant.


But a new roof design is expected to lower the cost into the $14 million to $17 million range, Oimoen said. The renovation will still feature overhead walkways for passengers to cross above the tracks, replacing the current tunnels beneath the tracks, he said.


Plans call for the state to pay nearly half the cost, through a mix of borrowing and other state dollars appropriated for rail purposes. The rest would come from federal aid, including the $2 million remaining from the high-speed rail grant.


Construction is to start in late March and last more than a year, Oimoen said.


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