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MADISON, Posted 8:20 AM September 24, 1999
A commuter line between downtown Madison and the suburb of McFarland is being proposed by a railroad company, which plans to test train cars on the line over the next few weeks.
Wisconsin & Southern Railroad will conduct the tests with double-decker cars used by the Chicago area's Metra commuter rail system, said Jeff Wiswell, spokesman for the railroad.
The commuter train would probably run during weekday rush hours and special events such as University of Wisconsin football games, Wiswell said Thursday.
The tests will be conducted on existing rail lines, but a regular commuter train would require the government to foot from $1.8 to $2 million for track improvements, he said.
Train service would seek to alleviate the Madison area's problems with parking and traffic congestion.
Wisconsin & Southern also would ask local governments, the university and the private sector to build about six train platforms, at a cost of $15,000 to $50,000 each.
The train, which would cost $1 to $2 a ride, would be self-sufficient once the improvements are made. If approved, the 10-mile line could begin by next summer, Wiswell said.
The idea of a commuter train in Dane County is not new. Local, state and university officials are considering plans for a wider-scale commuter line, which would start in Middleton and terminate on Madison's east side. Also under study is a countywide rail system, which would run from Mazomanie in western Dane County to the eastern suburb of Sun Prairie.
The full-service rail system would cost between $221 million and $281 million to build, consultants say. The line that starts in Middleton would cost just under half of that.
Wisconsin Central Ltd. plans a $9 million construction project to ease railroad congestion in Fond du Lac County.
The project calls for a new eight-mile railway so that trains can avoid a steep hill in the town of Byron, said Glenn Kerbs, vice president of engineering for Wisconsin Central.
The hill forces heavy trains to travel as slow as 10 mph and backs up other trains on their way to the Milwaukee and Chicago areas, Kerbs said.
State regulators, who have approved the project, said they will monitor construction.
The Wisconsin Central project calls for the alteration of four public crossings and new signal devices, said state railroad commissioner Rodney Kruenen.
"We know they want this done and we want to make sure it is done right," Kruenen said.
Trains will be able to use the new railway segment by early next year, Kerbs said.
Audit finds DOT doesn't give
Legislature complete information on U.S. funds
The state Department of Transportation hasn't given the Legislature important information about how it spends millions of dollars in federal railroad crossing money on highway bridges, legislative auditors reported Wednesday.
Two state senators immediately called for a full-scale audit of crossing funds, while a third senator chastised the DOT for keeping lawmakers in the dark.
But DOT officials said Wednesday that their use of the money was completely legal and that they were committed to increasing safety at railroad crossings.
Federal crossing money helped pay for a $7.1 million bridge on the state Highway 59 Waukesha bypass and for a $1.2 million pedestrian underpass near the Kohl Center in Madison, according to records released by the Legislative Audit Bureau and the DOT.
Those projects, along with an $8.4 million bridge in Neenah and a $1.8 million overpass in Portage County, all run over or under railroad tracks. They are the biggest of 24 road and bridge projects that have been partly funded with $19.9 million in crossing safety money since July 1994.
Such financing decisions have come under fire from some state and federal lawmakers, who have said the crossing money should have been used to upgrade crossings with gates and flashing lights, while highway money should have been used for overpasses and underpasses.
Railroads Commissioner Rodney Kreunen, whose office is in charge of crossing safety, said that the bridges are needed but that he had no idea they were being paid for with crossing dollars. Auditors noted that Kreunen has a backlog of 29 unsafe crossings for which he has ordered $2.4 million in upgrades but lacks the money to pay for the work.
In a review of the funding, auditors said the DOT also doesn't tell lawmakers how much federal money is available for various programs, which means the Legislature "has limited capacity for oversight" over those programs.
"That's right. We knew nothing" about how the DOT was spending the money, said Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), who asked for the Legislative Audit Bureau review. "My gut feeling is we're going to need a deeper audit."
Sen. Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee), co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, backed the call for a full-scale audit, saying: "Many dangerous crossings were left unattended while DOT squirreled away money for big bridge projects. I want to know if this has happened before."
And although it's legal to use the crossing money for bridges over tracks, Sen. Peggy Rosenzweig (R-Wauwatosa) said: "I think the Legislature and the public should be involved in setting those priorities. . . . The Legislature is often kept in the dark."
State DOT officials responded that they also have spent nearly $40 million in highway money on crossing-related projects in the past five years, including $1.6 million on gates and lights.
In a news release, the DOT added the state and federal dollars together and said, "Nearly $60 million of state and federal investments in the past five years have resulted in the lowest number of crashes and fatalities in 30 years."
Department figures show four people died in car-train crashes at Wisconsin crossings last year, down from six in 1997. But if snowmobilers, bicyclists and pedestrians are counted, seven people died at crossings in 1998, unchanged from 1997, according to Kreunen's office.
Cowles agreed that "the safety numbers have gotten pretty good," but added: "Whether they (DOT officials) can take credit for it is another matter."
Kreunen may deserve more credit for his aggressive efforts, Cowles said. The railroads commissioner's office is separate from the DOT.
Federal law allows the crossing money to be used for bridges over railroad tracks as long as at least half is used for crossing upgrades, said William Fung, chief of the Federal Highway Administration's Wisconsin division. Cowles questioned whether that goal was being met.
The DOT list shows $11.6 million, or 58% of the crossing money, was used for road and bridge projects over the past five years. However, DOT officials say they are complying with the 50% rule in the long run, even if the exact percentages fluctuate.
"Sometimes a bridge is the best way to separate a train and a vehicle," even if it costs more than gates and lights, Fung said.
In fact, 18 of 23 car-train crash deaths over the past five years occurred at crossings equipped with gates or flashing lights, Deputy Transportation Secretary Terry Mulcahy said. Only closing crossings or building overpasses and underpasses can stop those crashes, he said.
Mulcahy added that short of seeking a special appropriation, the crossing money was the only way for the state to help pay for Neenah's planned Main St. bridge, which will relieve traffic jams in a city where trains tie up traffic for up to two hours a day.
Linda Thelke, the DOT's chief spokeswoman, said transportation officials decide on needed projects first, then look for available funding, instead of trying to find projects that qualify for certain funds.
Chugging a little closer to high-speed rail service, the federal government has released $500,000 to upgrade four Racine County railroad crossings.
The federal money will be used to install new gates, flashing lights and electronic equipment to warn of approaching trains at four crossings along the Union Pacific tracks used by Amtrak's Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha line, in preparation for future high-speed service, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday.
Federal officials did not say which Wisconsin crossings would be upgraded, but state Railroad Commissioner Rodney Kreunen said he believed they are all between Franksville and the northern Racine County line. Two are likely to be at 7 Mile Road and 71/2 Mile Road, he said.
The new equipment not only will allow the Hiawatha to run through the crossings at 79 mph, the line's current top speed in most places, but also could handle trains up to 95 mph, Kreunen said. That would position the crossings for the further upgrades needed to accommodate 110-mph trains, he said.
A 110-mph line linking Milwaukee to Chicago, Madison and the Twin Cities is under study as part of the Midwest Rail Initiative, a $3.47 billion plan to create a Chicago-based network of high-speed and regular-speed trains providing fast and frequent service across nine states.
Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, the chairman of Amtrak's board, has thrown his support behind the initiative. If funding can be obtained - and that is a major question - high-speed trains could be running between Milwaukee and Madison as early as 2003, state officials say.
U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett (D-Wis.) applauded the grant and called high-speed rail "something we can all look forward to. If we have improved rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago, we all come out winners."
But before running faster trains, authorities are required to do more to prevent collisions with cars at crossings. That means either upgrading the crossings with better signals and stronger gates, building overpasses or underpasses, or barricading the crossings altogether.
Kreunen, who is in charge of crossing safety, said he plans to meet with local officials in Racine and Kenosha counties to help decide which crossings should be upgraded and which should be closed.
This grant is part of $6.95 million the federal government is spending to upgrade or close crossings along eight proposed high-speed rail routes, including $1.55 million in the Midwest.
Even without high-speed rail, "safety at crossings is becoming more and more an important concern," Barrett noted.
High-profile crashes like March's fatal truck-train collision in Bourbonnais, Ill., have focused attention on the issue.
It was not immediately clear whether this $500,000 was part of a $4.9 million state and federal commitment to Wisconsin high-speed rail that Thompson and U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater announced in January. Kreunen said it was, while a Barrett aide said it wasn't.
That $4.9 million included $3.2 million from Amtrak, $700,000 from the federal government and $1 million from the state, with the state money earmarked to study building a new Madison train station.
Southern Wisconsin Railcar Group.