Could this be the year? Passenger rail advocates have been trying for years to get funding to double Amtrak’s frequency in the region from one train per day to two — a project that will also boost freight rail shipping for industry and agriculture. Now, with millions of dollars from Wisconsin and the federal government, Minnesota is only partner that hasn’t ponied up. The Minnesota Legislature is crafting a new state budget right now, and local lawmakers have penned bills to fund the Twin Cities-Milwaukee Chicago (TCMC) Second Train.
“This project will only move forward if it’s funded by the Minnesota Legislature,” said Steve Young, a Winona City Council member and member of the advocacy group Great River Rail Commission (GRRC).
Currently, Amtrak’s Empire Builder route shuttles passengers from Chicago all the way to Seattle and Portland and gives Winona a car-less connection to Upper Midwest metro areas. However, the train only comes at one time of day and is infamously unreliable, as delays in Montana and the Dakotas snowball as the train chugs east.
The TCMC Second Train would add another train running between Chicago and St. Paul, with stops in La Crosse, Wis., Winona, and Red Wing, Minn., and other Wisconsin cities. Because it wouldn’t be affected by delays out west, the train would be far more reliable, while also adding more options for arrival and departure times, Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Passenger Rail Program Director Dan Krom said. Many of the infrastructure improvements needed to add the second passenger route would also cut down on congestion for freight rail traffic. For instance, in western Winona and at the Amtrak station, new siding tracks would be installed — allowing trains to pull off and let other trains pass — and automatic switches would be installed — allowing train crews to change tracks without getting out to throw a switch by hand. Similar improvements to Canadian Pacific’s Mississippi River crossing at La Crescent would speed up traffic what is currently a bottleneck for trains, Krom reported. In total, the increase to freight shipping efficiency is estimated to save shippers $34 million over 30 years, according to GRRC, a passenger rail advocacy group.
At a recent virtual town hall in Winona, GRRC member and Winona County Board member Chris Meier said those same infrastructure improvements would relieve the blockage of automobile traffic by moving trains more quickly through Winona. “To reduce those blockage times — that’s huge,” Young added.
So far, the TCMC project is more than 80-percent funded, and planners are seeking the final share from Minnesota lawmakers. The $53-million project has secured $31.8 million from the federal government, $6.2 million from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and $5 million from Amtrak. A requested $10 million from Minnesota would seal the deal.
The project has struggled in the past to make it to the top of Minnesota lawmakers’ budget priorities. Convincing both passenger rail skeptics and legislators in districts far from the route has been challenge. At last week’s town hall, one Winonan questioned why the state would invest more in passenger rail when Amtrak’s currently runs an annual deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars. Krom noted that the TCMC route would be financed separately from the rest of Amtrak’s operation. After three years of startup funding from the federal government, the TCMC train would need to support itself through fares or rely on state governments, according to GRRC.
Plenty of other Winonans were enthusiastically supportive of the project. Some chimed in that they would use it for business travel, Visit Winona Executive Director Pat Mutter highlighted Amtrak’s popularity with tourists, GRRC staff pointed out that 41 percent of Winona State University and Saint Mary’s University students have taken Amtrak to Winona, and Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom said the combination of travel and freight upgrades would fuel the regional economy. “That’s the most important piece of this project — is it will help our region continue to grow and prosper,” she stated.
At the town hall, Young encouraged Winonans to contact their legislators. “Tell them how you feel about this opportunity,” he asked.
State Senators Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) and Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) authored a bill to fund Minnesota’s share of the TCMC project. Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) authored a companion bill in the House. Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) is not a co-sponsor.