Earlier this spring, a group of boosters gathered in Eau Claire, Wis. — heralded by some as an emerging "mini-Portland" — and agreed on just what was missing from the western Wisconsin city's renaissance: passenger rail.
They not only have a plan to restore long-dormant rail service to St. Paul's Union Depot, they insist it can be privately financed, too.
The bold idea may seem far-fetched given the travails of publicly bankrolled transit projects in the Twin Cities, such as the $2 billion Southwest light-rail line. But the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, an Eau Claire-based nonprofit group of representatives from business, education, government and others, has been working on the idea for nearly two decades.
Emboldened by privately funded transit projects in Florida and Texas, and the Trump administration's support of public-private partnerships to bolster the nation's infrastructure, the Eau Claire coalition is shoring up financing to move forward. The cost to build the line ranges from $100 million to $250 million, and planners say fares will likely cover the cost of operating it.
"Nothing we're looking to do here has been done before," said James Coston, chairman of Corridor Capital, a Chicago-based passenger rail development, finance and management firm that plans to invest in the Eau Claire project. "This is a real grass-roots effort."
The Eau Claire-St. Paul line would feature stops in Menomonie, Baldwin and Hudson in Wisconsin and Stillwater in Minnesota. A one-way trip traveling at a top speed of 80 mph would take about an hour and 20 minutes and would cost $30 to $35, though some discounts may apply, and fares would be less for stops in between. Eight trips a day are planned, four in each direction, with Wi-Fi, snacks and beverages available for passengers.
Scott Rogers, government affairs and workforce director for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, said the nearly 30,000 students from the University of Wisconsin's Eau Claire, Stout and River Falls campuses would likely use the line, plus businesses in Eau Claire, as well as commuters heading to the Twin Cities from Stillwater and the Interstate 94 corridor in Wisconsin.
A rail connection, he said, would further fuel western Wisconsin's "knowledge economy" — those who prefer to live in the state's more affordable small cities, towns and rural stretches, but still want a connection to the urbanity of the Twin Cities.
One of the big backers of the rail project is Jamf, an Apple management software company founded by a UW-Eau Claire graduate, as well as the Royal Credit Union. However, another big employer in the city, the headquarters of home-improvement chain Menards, has a more tempered view of the idea.
"This certainly sounds like an interesting project," the company said in a statement. "However, we really don't have any particular needs that we could anticipate the project fulfilling at this time."
Eau Claire is a former factory town that languished after big manufacturing companies departed, including Uniroyal Goodrich Tire, which pulled up stakes in 1992.
Located at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, the city has since revived its waterfront and embraced its arts, academic and technology communities. A $100 million public-private partnership called the Confluence project includes residential and retail space, plus performing arts theaters that are slated to open this year.
There's also the so-called "Bon Iver Effect" — referring to Grammy-award winner and Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, who founded the Eaux Claires indie music festival four years ago. His involvement has helped cement his hometown's reputation as a millennial-friendly arts enclave, drawing comparisons to Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
Pieces in place
Although passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Eau Claire ceased in 1963, boosters say many of the pieces to revive it are already in place.
The majority of the 85-mile route is owned by Union Pacific Corp., and an agreement would be needed to share the corridor with its freight trains.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Kristen South confirmed that the Omaha-based rail company has had "preliminary discussions" with the Eau Claire consortium. "We're certainly open to the possibility," she said.
David Christianson, a coalition member who is a retired rail planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said, "You really have to have double track along the majority of the line so fast trains will not interfere with slow freight trains and impede your reliability."
Longer term, planners hope to extend the line to Target Field in Minneapolis and to Chicago as well.
Planners point to Florida's Brightline, the country's first higher-speed train that connects Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, as an example of a privately owned and operated system that works. Plans call for the train ultimately to travel to Orlando, but the federally authorized private activity bonds used to finance the line have come under fire from some members of Congress, who say they can be used only for highway or true high-speed rail projects traveling at more than 160 mph.
The Texas Central bullet train is still being planned. Traveling at speeds of up to 200 mph, the line would connect Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston in 90 minutes, with a single stop in the Brazos Valley. That $12 billion effort is being funded "with a blend of debt and equity" by private investors, including the operators of bullet trains in Japan. They vow no federal or state grants will be used to build or operate the line.
Rogers, who also chairs the Wisconsin rail coalition, said there's a benefit to running a service for the public like a business: "Being private, you have both the motivation of the operator to keep costs in line and the motivation to have a high level of customer service, because you have to generate revenue from customers who are using the train."