Even Facebook fans are rallying behind a proposal to attract passenger rail service along Interstate 94 in west-central Wisconsin.

A page called "Bring high-speed rail to Eau Claire" exceeded 2,500 entries Friday, many of them students and job commuters longing for public transit to the Twin Cities and Chicago.

"I was expecting a couple of hundred if I was lucky, but I'm astounded by this," said Seth Hoffmeister, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point who started the page. "I think providing as many transportation choices as possible is the right thing to do."

The passenger train frenzy, already in full swing in the metro area, won't stop at Minnesota's eastern border if Wisconsin can help it.

Dozens of community leaders associated with the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition envision a commuter train someday connecting Eau Claire and Hudson with the Twin Cities. They also want a proposed fast train linking the Twin Cities with Chicago to run along the I-94 corridor.

Scott Rogers, who co-chairs the coalition, said that I-94 and the bridge spanning the St. Croix River can't continue to bear the burden of traffic on one of the metro's busiest freeways. He estimates that 100,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily.

"We see a lot of growth and the physical bottleneck of the river," he said. "We are very oriented toward commerce to the Twin Cities."

St. Croix County, at the border with Minnesota, has the fastest rate of population growth in Wisconsin. Thousands of residents in St. Croix, Dunn and Eau Claire counties commute to work in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"We think that rail as a transportation option certainly opens up workforce opportunities back and forth," said Bill Rubin, executive director of the St. Croix Economic Development Corp. Passenger rail would attract new businesses along I-94 and adds "a little cosmopolitan flair" to the outlying metro area, he said.

Rubin also said that the heavily traveled strip of I-94 from Hudson to Eau Claire is now 50 years old and "big chunks of that interstate are coming to the end of their lives."

While transportation planners in Minnesota have no formal arrangement with their peers across the St. Croix, momentum is building toward a single vision for a commuter line. On the Minnesota side, the I-94 Corridor Commission continues to examine transit potential from St. Paul past Woodbury. On the Wisconsin side, five counties formed a group less than two weeks ago to study commuter rail.

Ted Schoenecker, a transportation planning engineer in Washington County, said a commuter train could follow the existing Union Pacific track through Lake Elmo and Oakdale.

Interest in east-metro transit grew substantially in the past year, he said, with President Obama's backing of a new passenger rail network nationwide. Successful beginnings for the Hiawatha and Northstar lines added to the momentum.

Scott said that people tend to think of Milwaukee and Madison as having all of Wisconsin's population, but the west-central portion is now a half-million residents strong.

The fast train to Chicago could make six round trips a day, but the route that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars remains in dispute. Washington County leaders want the Red Rock "river route" that Amtrak's "Empire Builder" passenger train uses, while Rochester legislators and business leaders prefer the "high-speed" Chicago trains diverted through their city.

While the idea of a high-speed route through Eau Claire remains strong, Scott said, a compromise plan to "split" the Chicago trains -- some daily along the I-94 route and some on the "river route" via La Crosse, Wis. -- would suit his coalition just fine.

Hoffmeister, who's public transportation coordinator for the Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Group, said Eau Claire's cultural character and its commuting ties with the Twin Cities make it an ideal fit with passenger rail.

"It's just a good thing all around," he said.

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432