ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Federal Railroad Administration says a route running along the Mississippi River is the most feasible and reasonable for a proposed high-speed commuter train between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
That puts an end to another option that would have sent the route along the I-94 corridor through Eau Claire.
However, not only is the preferred route in the earliest planning stages, but fixing the existing track for the entire high-speed line could cost as much $3 billion — and such funding isn't visible on the horizon.
But advocates hailed Tuesday's announcement as an important step in getting more money for faster passenger rail service.
"We're pleased that we're able to find a path to move forward and continue to develop the project ... if nothing else," said Dan Krom, director of the passenger rail office for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“If we can get to Chicago in 5-1/2 hours, we can compete with autos,” Krom told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Advocates say upgrading the existing track could produce top speeds ranging from 80 to 110 miles per hour and cut more than two hours from a Twin Cities-Chicago trip.
They scaled back expectations for speed after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal funding for a more expansive high-speed rail system in his state.
The Minnesota route would upgrade the Amtrak Empire Builder line that runs largely along Hwy. 61 through the Minnesota cities of Hastings, Red Wing, Winona and La Crescent before crossing the Mississippi River into La Crosse.
The selection, which allows officials to pursue environmental and engineering studies, in particular disappointed local officials in Eau Claire and Rochester, Minn.
“With the I-94 corridor continuing to be the fastest growing area in the state we are going to have to look at future transportation issues along this route, with passenger rail being a part of the conversation,” said Scott Rogers, co-chairman of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition.
Rogers has been an advocate for both routes. Brett Geboy, a spokesman for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has also supported both routes.
“The (Mississippi) river route and west-central route should both have passenger service, so we’re not against there being service through La Crosse,” Rogers said. “But we do think there are advantages of our route being the primary route.”
Regardless of the current proposal, Rogers and Krom said efforts to get passenger rail to the Chippewa Valley will continue.
The state rail plan in Minnesota calls for service to Eau Claire, a Gateway Corridor study is in the process of assessing transit options in the area, and a previous report from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation highlighted the benefits of passenger rail in both the Eau Claire and La Crosse markets.
“We certainly aren’t done, even if this plan is moving in that direction,” Rogers said.
As far as Rochester is concerned, Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said that the long-term prospects of the Twin Cities-Chicago line are far from clear because "Wisconsin's not terribly interested in participating."