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Friday, March 20, 2009

High-speed rail boosted by stimulus but still years away

From an article by Chris Hubbuch in the La Crosse Tribune:

The inclusion of money for commuter rail development in the federal stimulus package has boosted the spirits of train advocates and increased the likelihood of high-speed rail service between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

But it likely will be years before any additional trains roll through La Crosse or Winona, Minn.

Included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law last month was $8 billion to develop high-speed passenger train systems. Obama’s budget proposal includes $1 billion a year in grants to states for high-speed rail over the next five years.

“That was an important acceleration of this whole years-long quest,” said Jim Hill, executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corporation.

The rail funding comes at a time when ridership -- driven largely by Amtrak’s popular Chicago-Milwaukee service -- is surging. Wisconsin rail use rose more than 23 percent in 2008. The number of passengers getting on and off the Empire Builder in La Crosse was up 13 percent.

Commuter rail advocates long have lobbied to bolster train service between Chicago and the Twin Cities via La Crosse, and a long-standing multi-state plan calls for developing such a corridor that would carry six additional daily trains. The route also is among the U.S. Department of Transportation’s designated high-speed rail corridors.

The first step is extending service to Madison.

If Gov. Jim Doyle is successful in getting a piece of the stimulus money, the state could begin work on the line to Madison, said Randy Wade, passenger rail manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. That could take two to three years, he said, and continuing to the Twin Cities would take another two to three years.

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