New $22 Million Rail Concourse Opens
Intermodal Station's dark and dingy concourse for boarding trains finally replaced.
“Today is a great day for Wisconsin, a great day for the Milwaukee area and a great day for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation” proclaimed WisDOT secretary Mark Gottlieb at the ribbon cutting for the Milwaukee Intermodal Station‘s new $22 million passenger concourse and train shed. The station opened to great fanfare in 2007, replacing a dilapidated 1960s Amtrak station originally built by the defunct Milwaukee Road with a new glassy facility with an open ticketing and waiting area. The new station hid a secret, though, what Gottlieb called a “dark and dingy 50-year-old concourse,” that forced riders to board trains in what felt like a factory. Starting today, the front of the house finally matches the back with riders boarding trains in a well-lit, airy facility.
Designed by Hanno Weber & Associates of Chicago, construction on the project began in January 2015. Janesville-based J.P. Cullen served as the general contractor on the project, with Benesch and GRAEF providing engineering support. Attached to the south side of the station at 433 W. St. Paul Ave., the structure is 400-feet long, 121-feet wide and 56-feet tall from ground to rooftop.
The new concourse features escalators, elevators and stairs to get passengers up to a mezzanine level in a way that is fully accessible to those with disabilities. The project itself was mandated not by the need for a better looking entryway to the city, but because the prior concourse was far from compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
The platforms are used by seven Amtrak Hiawatha Service trains a day, as well as two Amtrak Empire Builder trains. While substantially more active than many Midwestern train stations, the station has the capacity to see substantially more traffic if the Hiawatha Service is ever extended or the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail project ever gets off the drawing board.
Redevelopment of the train shed isn’t as simple and straight forward as it might seem. In addition to accommodating nearly 600,000 passengers every year, the train shed sits over a very active freight line. The station is owned by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, but the five tracks through the facility are owned by the Canadian Pacific railroad. The station is leased to and operated by the Milwaukee Intermodal Partners (with office space available for lease). The operator pays property taxes on the building, which allowed the city to use tax-incremental financing to contribute $6 million to the $15 million 2007 renovation.
As if the multiple layers of ownership and management aren’t enough, to get the necessary approvals for the project the state had to work with the Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration and Federal Highway Administration.
Despite its complicated history, passenger rail advocates and WisDOT officials were all smiles at the mezzanine ribbon cutting today with well-over 100 people in attendance.
Concourse and Station Photos
Station Becoming Truly Multi-Modal
It’s taken a number of years, but the intermodal station is finally living up to its name. It opened with Greyhound buses, Amtrak trains and a handful of other regional bus lines, but has shown steady growth since then. Bublr Bikes added a dock at the station in 2014 and earlier this year Badger Bus relocated their downtown hub to the station. The Milwaukee Streetcar will stop at the station’s eastern end when service begins in two years. Still in planning, the Milwaukee County Transit System might end up sending a number of routes to the station as part of the demolition of the Downtown Transit Center. All told, an estimated 1.3 million trips began or ended at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station last year.
Increasing Costs and Delays
The state missed numerous opportunities to save millions on the project. The $823 million high-speed rail stimulus grant that would have extended the Hiawatha Service to Madison would have paid for 100 percent of the project cost, but governor Scott Walker pledged to reject the project during his gubernatorial campaign, causing the federal government to withdraw the grant in 2010. Adding insult to injury, the Federal Railroad Administration passed tougher regulations about platform heights in 2011, which substantially increased the project cost because the state failed to get construction underway by the February 2012 cut-off.
Compounding the boarding issues and costs, the state legislature rejected the use of the Milwaukee-built Talgo trainsets which featured lower boarding. Litigation relating to that decision has yet to be resolved, but to-date the state has paid over $50 million for trains it does not own and cannot use. Still in use today are Horizon passenger cars dating back to 1988.
If you’re still with me, the 2010 project cost was $0 and the final cost was $22 million. Ouch. Thankfully the federal government stepped in to cover 50 percent of the bill.
Ticking off the recent improvements, secretary Gottlieb said “we’re not just standing still with regard to the service we provide on the Hiawatha.” Wi-fi is available on all trains now. Passengers may now also bring their bikes onto the Hiawatha without disassembly for $5. In addition, small pets are welcome aboard, including cats and small dogs.
A number of summer pilot programs are underway, including the addition of late-night service departing from Chicago at 11:10 p.m. and a south-bound train leaving Milwaukee at 10:40 p.m. Kids 12 and under can ride free this summer on Friday, Saturday and Sunday with the purchase of a paid adult ticket.
New locomotives will also be added to the trains in 2017, which according to Michael Franke of Amtrak promise faster acceleration and better fuel efficiency.
Praising the station improvements, Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce president Tim Sheehy proclaimed that “great cities have great front doors.” Going on to push for more Hiawatha service, Sheehy stated “let’s add to the seven trains, let’s improve the track to pick up speed between here and Chicago.” How long will we have to wait for it to actually happen?