Madison preparing for potential Amtrak expansion

By: - December 9, 2022 7:00 am

Residents discuss the potential Amtrak station locations at Madison’s passenger rail study kickoff meeting. Photo by Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner.

The city of Madison is moving ahead with planning for a potential passenger rail station, over a decade after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million from the federal government for high speed rail. 

Remembrance of the lost opportunity hung in the air during the city’s kickoff meeting for its passenger rail study, where over 100 community members joined in-person to ask questions, learn more about what’s to come and deliver their feedback to city leaders. The study will consider locations for a possible Amtrak station in the capital city. 

“Madison wants passenger rail service,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said at the meeting. “We’ve wanted it for a long time, right? I think some of us have wanted it since it went away.”

Rhodes-Conway said the city is better positioned than ever to bring back passenger rail, which ended in 1965. She cited improvements along the existing corridor since 2010, federal leaders’ support of public transportation and the existence of historic levels of federal funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as reasons. 

Madison’s current goal is to choose where a rail station could go in the city, laying the groundwork for potential entrance into the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program. Established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the program is tasked with facilitating the development of intercity passenger rail corridors and has a total of $66 billion over the next five years to use towards passenger rail services improvements and service expansion.

The first step of Madison’s study will be screening six general areas — some new and others previously considered in a 2010 study — to narrow down the viable options before looking at more specific locations. The areas include a site near the Dane County Regional Airport, another one near the former Oscar Mayer plant and others along a portion of First Street, in a near east side neighborhood, downtown and near the UW-Madison Campus. 

The study, being conducted in conjunction with engineering company HNTB, will examine criteria for each area including site ownership, site size and configuration, accessibility by bus, car, bike and foot, environmental impacts and what rail operations would look like. 

Aaron Bowe, an engineer with HNTB, said the city is taking a fresh look at the near east side because it has “good geometry,” even though it might not be as close to the downtown as some would like. He added that the Oscar Meyer site could be a good area for development, while the airport would have good multimodal accessibility. 

While city leaders are gathering feedback from community members, they also said many factors would need to go into the final recommendation. 

“At the end of the day, we have to pick a station that works for Amtrak and that works for the Federal Railroad Administration,” Rhodes-Conway said. “That’s sort of the bottom line. We can’t choose just anything we want. We have to choose something that will work for them because otherwise we’re not going to successfully get into the process and get the funding we need from the federal government.

The city plans to recommend a station site by April 2023. 

Amtrak’s Connect US study recommended extending the Hiawatha Corridor to Madison. (Screenshot from Amtrak’s Connect US Map)

The passenger rail study represents the first step in a long journey towards connecting Madison with other cities via regional rail, especially as federal funding is not yet certain. Many are optimistic that the Madison project could secure a spot in the FRA program due to the long-time desire for the expansion and two recent studies.

Amtrak’s “Connects US” study published in June 2021 proposed expanding the Hiawatha Corridor, which currently runs seven daily trips between Milwaukee and Chicago, to include three to four roundtrips daily to Madison. The Madison stop would likely act as a terminal station — or final destination — along the Hiawatha route to start, but planners are also keeping future expansions to Minnesota’s Twin Cities in mind. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Midwest Regional Rail plan identified the Madison to Chicago corridor as a “Core Express service” with the highest ridership potential. It added that Madison was “critical to operational viability of the Core Express corridor between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul” and should be “included on any mainline route alignment.”

“It will be a journey… [It will] take time,” Arun Rao, director of network development for Amtrak, said at the meeting. Rao pointed out that even if Madison is admitted into the program there are still many further steps necessary for implementing an expanded rail. “There’s service development planning that can take a year. Environmental clearance, another year and then you go into final design and construction, so it’s hard to give a time frame, but I will say that the Corridor Identification Program is really going to help move these types of things forward faster than perhaps they have in the past.”

The FRA is expected to begin requesting proposals from eligible entities before the end of 2022. 

Philip Gritzmacher, Madison’s transportation planner, said in an email that a regional entity will likely submit the future proposal to the FRA. According to a FRA notice, several entities including the state and Amtrak are eligible to submit proposals. 

Rao said the FRA is expected to make its first selections of corridors for the federal program in May.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.