Graham Kilmer

WisDOT Plans Increase in Hiawatha Service

With $35 million from new budget, WisDOT seeks federal matching grants for expansion.

By - Jul 17th, 2019 04:32 pm
The Amtrak Hiawatha approaching downtown Milwaukee. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Amtrak Hiawatha approaching downtown Milwaukee. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The administration of Gov. Tony Evers, with its first budget in hand, is investing in rail transportation and expanding frequency on a popular Amtrak line.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) announced to the press Wednesday its plans to expand the frequency of the Hiawatha line running between Milwaukee and Chicago. With $35 million in budget authority, WisDOT has the local matching funds it needs to compete for grants from the Federal Department of Transportation. Those grants, if awarded to the state, will help fund infrastructure projects that increase the daily frequency of the Hiawatha line from seven round trips to 10.

The state has recently secured two grants to begin work on the $195 million expansion.

This is a departure from the transportation policy of the previous administration. Former Gov. Scott Walker refused more than $800 million in federal funds that would have developed a high-speed train between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. Not to mention the botched deal with train manufacturer Talgo that cost taxpayers millions with nothing to show in return.

Instead, this administration is highlighting the strong connections between rail transportation and the economy. “We know that rail transportation is important to our state economy as well as our workforce,” said Craig Thompson, Secretary Designee of WisDOT.

Connection and commerce go hand in hand, explained Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association for Commerce. Businesses and employers will be better served by increased frequency and reliability along the Hiawatha line. “This is a critically important part of Milwaukee’s economy,” Sheehy said.

As Joel Brennan, secretary-designee of the state Department of Administration pointed out, more than 1.3 million Wisconsinites live along the Hiawatha line, the line itself supports more than 60,000 jobs and more than 40 percent of the trips on the line are business or work related.

Increasing the frequency of the Hiawatha will likely increase ridership for the line. In 2003, WisDOT increased frequency on the line to its current seven round trips a day, and since then ridership has more than doubled. During the last three years, ridership has increased annually, according to the WisDOT. In 2018, it increased 3.6 percent. During the first 6 months of 2019, ridership increased 5.6 percent.

Since the Evers administration has been battered by state Republicans for anything or anyone that helps, or comes from, Milwaukee, WisDOT made sure to point out that nearly half of the 72 counties in Wisconsin were represented in a survey of Hiawatha riders. “It really does represent a statewide investment,” Brennan said. Part and parcel of that statewide investment is the new Hiawatha Bus line, which connects Oshkosh, Fond Du Lac, Appleton and Green Bay to both the Milwaukee airport and the Amtrak train.

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