BIL funding gives hope for development of Chippewa & St. Croix Valley passenger rail
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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Funding from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could make passenger rail in the Chippewa Valley and St. Croix Valley a very real possibility in the coming years.
Scott Rogers of the Chippewa – St. Croix Rail Commission spoke to the Dunn County Board at the January 18 meeting about the commission’s recent activities.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will provide funding for development of passenger rail with $66 billion over the next five years, Rogers said.
That is more federal investment in passenger rail than the last 10 years combined, he said.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, as enacted in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on November 15, 2021.
The BIL authorizes up to $108 billion for public transportation, the largest federal investment in public transportation in the nation’s history.
Funding for planning passenger rail will soon be available, and by March 20, the Chippewa – St. Croix Valley Rail Commission must submit an application to the Federal Rail Commission to have the corridor designated by the FRA, Rogers said.
By officially becoming a corridor, an automatic $500,000 will be awarded in federal funds for planning passenger rail and how to implement the service, he said.
CSCRC was formed last year through a resolution approved by the Dunn County Board, the Eau Claire County Board, the St. Croix County Board and the municipalities of Altoona, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Baldwin, New Richmond and Hudson, Rogers said.
Gary Stene, county board supervisor from Colfax and vice-chair of the Dunn County Board, is vice-chair of the Chippewa – St. Croix Rail Commission Board of Directors.
Rogers is a commissioner on the CSCRC Board of Directors.
The corridor for passenger rail would extend from Eau Claire to the Minnesota border and would operate on Union Pacific Rail Lines, Rogers said.
Passenger rail in the area has not been available since the 400 stopped operating in 1963, he said.
Since the 1960s, the public investment of money has gone into the development of airports and highways, Rogers said.
The 400 was a passenger train operated between Chicago and Minneapolis and took its name from the schedule of traveling 400 miles in 400 minutes.
Areas in the Pacific Northwest, Illinois, Missouri and Michigan are traveling by rail, Rogers noted.
Having passenger rail available would be an advantage for west central Wisconsin. The Hiawatha line in southern Wisconsin has been very successful and has been experiencing increasing ridership, he said.
The Chippewa and St. Croix Valley rail line could connect to an additional route to La Crosse, the Wisconsin Dells and on to Chicago, Rogers said.
The investment in passenger rail is returned many times over, he said.
Missouri recently completed an economic study on passenger rail from St. Louis to Kansas City. An $8 million per year investment in passenger rail results in $200 million in economic activity and a return of $22 million in tax revenue, Rogers said.
The Chippewa and St. Croix corridor has among the highest growth counties and cities in the state because of quality of life, housing affordability and easier access to the Twin Cities, he said.
Passenger rail would increase accessibility to educational institutions as well, including UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, Chippewa Valley Technical College and Northwood Technical College (formerly known as Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College), Rogers said.
Passenger rail would provide an alternative to driving I-94. The St. Croix River Bridge and I-94 and 494-694 are all “bottlenecks,” he said.
The corridor into Minnesota is highly traveled, with more than 100,000 vehicles crossing the St. Croix River every day, Rogers said.
A 2004 report from the Wisconsin of Department of Transportation determined that passenger rail in western Wisconsin was financially feasible, and the corridor from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities is on the Minnesota rail plan and the Wisconsin rail plan, he said.
Options for future passenger rail service, in addition to frequent rail service from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities, is through service from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities, Rogers said.
Shuttle connections to existing Amtrak stations, such as shuttles from Menomonie and Eau Claire to Tomah, and a dedicated shuttle service to Tomah and on to Chicago, also are being considered, he said.
The Chippewa – St. Croix Rail Commission has hired a consultant who is working with a variety of rail service companies such as Hazog, Keolis, Transdev and RATPDev, Rogers said.
The Chippewa – St. Croix Rail Commission is meeting every month now, and the next meeting is February 15 at 8:30 a.m. at the Dunn County Government Center, he said.
The CSCRC annual meeting is scheduled for Thursday, January 26, from 8:30 a.m to 11:30 a.m. at Chippewa Valley Technical College, Rogers said.