East metro residents who fight their way to work amid thousands of Wisconsin commuters may one day get a lift to work courtesy of a train coming out of the Badger State.
A push is on for privately financed passenger rail service from Eau Claire to St. Paul’s Union Depot, with a stop in Stillwater. Such a train has been official planning policy in Minnesota since 2009, and a Wisconsin county board a few days ago passed a resolution supporting such a project amid concerns from critics that taxpayers will end up with the tab if the private line fails.
The push for the line, fueled by business interests, is coming from the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition. With strong residential growth in the east metro and a jobs base that leans west, east metro motorists often face a plugged-tight commute that can turn epic with any hint of serious weather.
“The man in my life is over there on the Minnesota side,” said Jan Johnson, a credit union executive in Eau Claire, “and one of us is always going one direction or the other. We’ve been fortunate this winter. But in other years, there’ve been a lot of canceled weekends.
“For business trips it’s something you always monitor ... without being able to make firm plans, which is an inconvenience for everyone whether you’re receiving the person or traveling.”
Tens of thousands of Wisconsin commuters pour into Minnesota each morning from Hudson and St. Croix County alone, and studies show that rail wouldn’t capture more than a fraction of that traffic. Nevertheless, based on the prospect of hundreds of thousands of rides annually, a Minnesota Department of Transportation study has classed the Eau Claire rail corridor as a Phase 1 project — a top priority — with good potential to recover costs from fares.
The existence of a Union Pacific rail track sitting there ready for trains has long seemed to Minnesotans to be an obvious solution. Now planners have conditional approval from Union Pacific for use of the track, and an expensively refurbished Union Depot in downtown St. Paul with connections that include a smooth Green Line light-rail trip across town to Minneapolis.
With less expensive homes than can be found in much of the metro area, the seven Wisconsin counties closest to jobs in the Twin Cities have seen strong growth. The Wisconsin Business Association reports that building permits leapt by more than 40 percent in the two years ending in 2016.
Plans for a rail line catering to those residents call for the kind of privately financed operation or public-private partnership that’s beginning to sprout elsewhere in the country. One example is in Florida, where trains for Brightline service from Miami northward along the Atlantic Coast were unveiled in January with plans to launch in 2019.
The Wisconsin rail coalition has a retired Minnesota state government rail planner shepherding its effort. “They have a very capable team,” said Brian Nelson of All Aboard Minnesota, a rail advocacy group, “and Union Pacific has invested a lot into that line, which is a main line that could probably do 60 to 65 miles an hour today” without improvements that could allow for greater speeds.
Scott Rogers, governmental affairs and workforce director for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, said the coalition would “hope to cover operating costs from the fare box. We’re not looking for an operating subsidy. We don’t know if any public money would be involved.”
Chippewa County, Wis., commissioners this month voted 11-3 to give the rail coalition their support. But the move to start gathering endorsements from public bodies has some smelling boondoggle.
“Who is sitting around coming up with these projects?” posed an anonymous reader in the Chippewa Herald. “This is going to fall onto local or state taxes to pay for any financial shortfalls. The reason they want to offer this is so they can create urban sprawl here in Chippewa, offer the small town feel for people who want to work in the Cities.”
Much work remains
That last part actually is a big element of the pitch for rail.
“We lose a lot of good graduates from our [western Wisconsin] universities who go to Minnesota to work because they feel they have to move over there,” Johnson said. “But if they had a train, they could get to town as quickly as some do now via car from a Minnesota suburb, and they could be working as they go.”
Ridership potential from the portion of the metro area that extends into western Wisconsin is significant enough that planners spent a lot of time trying to pencil out a push across the state line for the proposed Gold Line busway to Woodbury, said Lyssa Leitner, a Washington County transportation planner. “It just didn’t cost out for us,” she said.
But bus rapid transit means frequent all-day service, while a train would offer just four trips daily each way.
The fact that estimated start-up and capital costs range from $140 million to $450 million, Nelson said, shows that a lot of figuring still needs to be done to determine how much work is required.
Then, too, he said, his group would stress the need to ultimately extend the line to Chicago to make it more viable. “But we support [the coalition’s] proposal,” he said.
According to its latest newsletter, the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers believes this type of line could unite urban and rural interests.
“You can get millennials — and the companies that employ them — to settle in your community if you have a couple of trains a day connecting you to the nearest big city,” the newsletter said. “Businesses like the low taxes ... and employees prefer small town life, too, if they can get away to the big city for the weekend without a lot of highway hassle and overpriced downtown parking.”