Thursday, December 16, 2010

$2 million may go to Rochester corridor

The Minnesota Department of Transportation hosts a monthly Intercity Passenger Rail Forum with various stakeholders including transportation officials, politicians, and representatives of rail advocacy groups from around the state. This month, the forum recommended that $2 million be put toward studying a rail link between the Twin Cities and Rochester. Considering how much most rail projects cost, $2 million isn't a whole lot—then again, it's more than the $1.2 million that went into the current study for a rail route between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee this year.

If the recommendation is followed, the money will come from a $26 million pot which was set aside last year by the Minnesota Legislature. The group also suggested putting $10 million toward the Northern Lights Express line to Duluth, which should help that line move forward quite a bit. $9.7 million would go to the Saint Paul Union Depot project—That building could sop up any money you throw at it, so I worry a bit about how much it's costing to rehabilitate (it'll be worthwhile in the long run, though). Another $3.6 million was suggested for the Minneapolis Transportation Interchange, the next generation of the Hiawatha/Northstar Target Field station. The aforementioned Twin Cities to Milwaukee study would get another $550,000.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Milwaukee – Twin Cities corridor open houses

The Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation will be holding open houses discussing the planned 110-mph rail route between Milwaukee and Saint Paul/Minneapolis. They've been working on a $1.2 million study this year along with the Federal Railroad Administration. The meetings will run from November 29th through December 7th and will all be from 5 to 7 p.m.

Monday, Nov. 29, 2010
Saint Paul Union Depot
214 Fourth Street E.
St. Paul, MN 55101

Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010
Best Western Riverfront Hotel
1835 Rose Street
La Crosse, WI 54603

Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010
Best Western Trail Lodge
3340 Mondovi Road
Eau Claire, WI 54701

Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010
University of Wisconsin, Fond du Lac
Fond du Lac, WI

Monday, Dec 6, 2010
Mayo Civic Center
Elliott Suite
30 Civic Center Drive SE
Rochester, MN 55904

Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
WisDOT Southwest Region Office
2101 Wright Street
Madison, WI 53704

Friday, November 19, 2010

Catching up

The most surprising event for me following the November 2nd election was Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle's move to pause work on the Hiawatha Service extension from Milwaukee to Madison and let Scott Walker decide whether the project should continue once he enters office. Doyle had adamantly defended the project all year long, and even signed agreements with the federal government just before the election to commit the state to spending the $810 million allocated toward the project.

To me, the moved smelled of fear. It seemed that Democrats around the country began knuckling under the apparent might of the Republicans. While the election took place on November 2nd, nobody's going to take office until the beginning of January, so I've been a bit baffled why anyone would want to change their behavior at this point.

I partly refrained from writing anything because I want to take the long view. High-speed rail has been examined between Chicago and the Twin Cities for decades. The earliest studies I've been able to find date to 1990/1991, though there's evidence that such a link had been studied even earlier. This map comes from Nova's 1982 episode "Tracking the Supertrains", and clearly shows a Twin Cities link:

Nova "Supertrains" map

We've been waiting 30 years or more for a return to higher speeds in the corridor. I was born in 1978, and I certainly don't our progress to slow further. I am willing to wait a little bit if the Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota Departments of Transportation are interested in building a train that would go significantly faster than 110 mph, or if there are modest technical issues that need brief delays on the order of months. I am not willing to wait for the "next big thing", however—We don't need a maglev, for instance. Trains using existing steel wheel on rail technology works just fine.

Getting back to Governor Doyle, I've thought of several possible reasons why he decided to shut down the rail line extension:
  1. It will (probably) make Scott Walker a hypocrite. This seems to be the most straightforward explanation. Who can turn down $810 million from the federal government? We'll see if Walker can actually follow through on his campaign promises, though I don't have as much faith as Doyle (apparently) does that Walker would succumb to greed.
  2. It's setting up for a legal battle with the feds. If Walker tries to turn down the cash, some sort of legal battle will ensue. If Doyle and his contacts in federal agencies believe there's a strong enough case, they might be getting ready to use the court system to force the line to be built. That's definitely not an avenue I'd go down, though. The courts are not known for their expediency.
  3. It's preventing financial waste. Instead of betting against Walker as in point #1, Doyle may be betting that Walker would succeed in stopping the project. If this is true, Doyle may be trying to protect the money so that others could get it instead. That might be noble, but it just seems to make Doyle and other Democrats look weak in my estimation.
  4. The route to the Twin Cities is waiting in the wings. For most of 2010, Mn/DOT and WisDOT have been studying where to route high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago. I had originally heard they were planning to finish in September, but it might be done until early 2011. With 8 trains per day, this should be a self-sufficient service that would not require an operating subsidy. This might become a point to stick in Scott Walker's face when he enters office.
  5. The time will bring resolutions to technical/political issues. In the weeks and months before the election, there had been a considerable amount of wrangling regarding where stations will go along the line. Cities like Oconomowoc were concerned about the ongoing costs to maintain the station facilities. WisDOT had dropped Oconomowoc as a planned stop due to the city government's dour attitude, though the city was feeling a little seller's remorse afterward and was planning to discuss the issue after the election. Brookfield was in a similar quandry about whether to continue working with WisDOT or not. This delay could allow those cities to more fully discuss plans with the DOT.
I find it pretty amazing that politicians in Wisconsin got so worked up over a train service that will only require an extra $7 million a year to operate, a value which is tiny in comparison to the state's budget to mow grass along its highways. It's a small enough number that the city of Madison could pay some or all of it. Right now, the state is worrying about a $2.2 billion budget deficit (or possibly more). It's reasonable for people to get worried about any program that is going to cost the state money when you look at a number like that, but it requires some context. Wisconsin's yearly state budget is somewhere on the order of $25 billion. The state budget could be fixed by increasing taxes about 10% from current levels. However, the $7 million yearly cost for the rail line would be just 0.03% of the state budget. Clearly there are bigger fish to fry.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Video supporting Milwaukee–Madison rail line

Honestly, I haven't been able to watch this whole video yet since my eyes were rolling several times within the first 30 seconds. It was picked up by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, and they seemed to like it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Northern Lights Express going through longer environmental review

The article is short on specifics, but the Star Tribune reported on Monday that the proposed Northern Lights Express from Minneapolis to Duluth is taking a longer environmental review process that will delay construction of the line by about a year. From what I've learned about the NLX so far, this sounds like the NLX planners are going through a full Environmental Impact Statement process rather than doing a shorter Environmental Assessment.

Some open houses over the summer had display boards with a timeline saying that a full EIS will likely take until early 2012 to complete, while an EA could have been completed late this year or early in 2011. A presentation from the same meetings says that three routes, 9, 11, and 11A, will be evaluated going forward, even though the line from Minneapolis through Coon Rapids and along BNSF's Hinckley Subdivision remains the top choice.

I haven't been able to find route descriptions with as much detail as I would like, but as far as I know, route 9 is the route we've become familiar with, running from Minneapolis to a suburban station (probably at the Foley Boulevard transit center in Coon Rapids), and then heading north-northwest along the Hinckley Sub through Cambridge, Hinckley, and Sandstone before hitting Superior and Duluth.

Routes 11 and 11A would run along the old "Skally Line" from the Twin Cities to Hinckley before getting on the existing BNSF route into the Twin Ports. The Skally Line is largely abandoned today, though the St. Croix Valley Railroad short line still operates a segment. Route 11 would go north from Minneapolis and then cut across to the east from the vicinity of BNSF's Northtown Yard and Canadian Pacific's Shoreham Yard along CP trackage (their Withrow Subdivision) to reach the Skally Line.

Route 11A would instead turn east at Minneapolis Junction and run along BNSF's Midway Subdivision, go past the current Amtrak station on Minnesota Commercial Railway trackage, and go along the CP Merriam Park Subdivision to get to the Saint Paul Union Depot.

I think it's best to go with the current high-scorer, route 9, which parallels the busy Minnesota State Highway 65. MN-65 is not as well known as the roughly parallel Interstate 35, but it has a lot of traffic signals slowing things down and causing driver frustration. I-35 is simply busy in comparison. After route 9 gets built, I think they should consider adding route 11A in as well. Of the three, 11A currently has the lowest score, but it would serve the Union Depot, which is undergoing a major restoration. The Skally Line route also ran parallel to today's Interstate 35 (and I-35E within the metro). It will get harder and harder to justify adding more lanes to I-35, so a train running immediately parallel to the Interstate would be attractive to many people.

A few years ago, it was hoped that the NLX could open in 2012. With the EIS delay and everything else that has added up, it's likely that it will take until 2014 for the train to start running. Fortunately, when it does start up, there should be 8 round-trips per day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Overview and mission

I've decided to try running a blog related to rail projects in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Illinois. My plan is to find and interpret news related to developments along the Minneapolis/Saint Paul – Madison – Milwaukee – Chicago corridor, though there will likely be a few detours along the way.

This rough corridor was historically served by some of the fastest trains in the United States from the 1930s into the 1950s, when the Milwaukee Road Hiawathas, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Twin Zephyrs, and Chicago and North Western 400s raced through this region at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Since the late 1940s, increasing restrictions in the name of safety caused many trains in the U.S. to slow down rather than speed up just as competing road and airline networks grew significantly.

This region has been interested in bringing back fast passenger trains for decades. The state governments of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois started studying the concept starting around 1990. In 1992, the Chicago – Milwaukee line was designated as a federal high-speed rail corridor, and that was extended several years later to the Twin Cities. Today the corridor is served by Amtrak's Empire Builder, once daily each way between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, and the Hiawatha Service, several times daily between Chicago and Milwaukee. An $810 million extension of the Amtrak's Hiawatha to Madison, Wisconsin is under construction. The states of Minnesota and Wisconsin have also been studying possible routes for high-speed rail between Chicago and the Twin Cities for the past several months, and were targeting September 2010 as the finish date. That means they are expected to post their findings any day now.

Unless political issues cause projects in this region to completely stall, the next several years should see a lot of activity. I've been frustrated by the depth of coverage on this subject, so I hope that through my research and writing, I can help give the public a better understanding of what's going on.

Thanks, and I hope to write again soon.