Airport Train Station Construction Progressing
Train station continues to operate while second platform built.
Much like the freight trains that pass it, construction is rumbling forward at the Milwaukee Airport Rail Station (MARS).
The project, which will add a second platform to the station, is a key component of a plan to increase the frequency of Amtrak Hiawatha Service trains between Milwaukee and Chicago.
MARS is located at 5601 S. 6th St., on the western edge of the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport grounds. But despite its airport name and proximity, the station’s primary audience is residents that live south of Downtown and are looking to get to Chicago. The station’s large surface parking lot and proximity to the airport freeway spur make it a convenient alternative for those who otherwise would drive Downtown to Milwaukee Intermodal Station.
Earlier this year, Zenith Tech received a $17.2 million construction contract to build an 800-foot-long concrete platform, elevator towers, a skywalk across the two-track rail line and a host of improvements to the surrounding track.
The expanded station will offer a key efficiency: trains will be able to stop on either of the two tracks. The 14 trains per day that currently stop at the station can only do so on the eastern track. That single-side stopping creates an operational bottleneck when scheduling the faster passenger trains around slower, longer freight trains.
But as the project’s price tag proves, that efficiency comes at an upfront cost. As it previously did for the Sturtevant station, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) designed an enclosed walkway across the double-tracked mainline. Two elevators will be located in each tower and a host of improvements are planned.
Trains will continue to serve the station during construction. The project is expected to be completed in June 2025.
MARS originally opened in 2005. The current Sturtevant station opened in 2006. WisDOT received a $5 million federal grant to fund the MARS expansion in 2019.
For those who make the train-plane connection, a shuttle bus operates between the station and airport. Expanding the frequency of the Hiawatha could make it more appealing for Illinois or southern Wisconsin residents to use the train-plane link because waiting times would be shorter.
While the station is owned by WisDOT, the rail line is owned by Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC). The railroad will allow an additional round trip on its tracks in exchange for a series of infrastructure upgrades, including the new platform and two projects near Milwaukee Intermodal Station. An earlier agreement to allow three additional round trips is on hold after Illinois canceled plans in 2019 to build a holding siding for freight trains in the Chicago suburbs.
WisDOT is awaiting a second federal grant to execute the Muskego Yard bypass project, which would route freight trains away from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Securing that grant is necessary to add the eighth daily Hiawatha roundtrip. The project involves creating a new two-track mainline track through CPKC’s Muskego Yard in the Menomonee Valley, allowing trains with double-stacked shipping containers to avoid the downtown train station. The project’s escalating cost, including from inflation and bridge replacements, caused WisDOT to pursue a second grant. It originally won a $26.6 million grant in 2020 for what was to be a $55 million project.
“The infrastructure is really meant for future [CPKC] growth,” said Lisa Stern, chief of railroads and harbors for WisDOT, on March 1 to the City of Milwaukee Public Transportation, Utilities and Waterways Review Board. Through a web of federal regulations, host railroads can demand infrastructure improvements that primarily benefit their operations in exchange for allowing expanded passenger rail service. The CPKC mainline between downtown Milwaukee and the Illinois border is among Wisconsin’s most heavily used rail corridors.
News on the Muskego Yard grant could come soon. On Thursday evening and Friday morning, elected officials and the Federal Railroad Administration announced grant awards to restart Gulf Coast service, improve rail service near Washington D.C. in Virginia and expand service in Massachusetts. The awards come from the grant program that is expected to fund the Muskego Yard project, but at the time of publication, a full list of awardees had yet to be released.
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