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Train backers chug toward route selection

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news River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Can you hear the train whistle coming?

It may be a long way off, but officials across western Wisconsin are excited about the prospect of commuter rail and/or high speed train service coming to the Interstate corridor.

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Several groups are working toward that end.

For almost a decade, the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition has been promoting the idea of extending rail service to the region. Their newly updated Web site, www.westwisconsinrail.org, casts a vision for the region's future as it relates to trains.

Momentum West, an economic development organization working on behalf of 10 area counties including St. Croix and Pierce, has also been part of the push for rail expansion.

Most recently, the West Central Wisconsin Interstate 94 Corridor Coalition was formed to bring together officials from Minnesota and Wisconsin to work toward more rail opportunities.

Chuck Whiting, St. Croix County's administrative coordinator, is part of that new group.

"The intent is to organize so we can have an umbrella organization to deal with some of our rail efforts," Whiting explained.

He said the county wants to be involved in the preliminary transit discussions because it has much to gain if train service eventually comes here.

As federal and state officials continue to place more emphasis and funding on public transit, Whiting said the region wants to be in position to convince others that expansion here makes sense.

Ann Schell, senior planner with West Central Regional Planning and a member of both rail coalitions, said a future rail system could have a two-pronged approach.

The Interstate 94 corridor is being considered for a new high-speed train route from Chicago to Minneapolis. This region is in competition with La Crosse for eventual high-speed service.

Wisconsin has received federal funding to conduct a study to determine what route the high-speed train will follow from Madison to the north.

Local train backers are convinced they have the best argument.

"There are plenty of reasons why we should be chosen for the route," Schell said. "It's a wise economic choice. And it would serve a larger population base to the north."

More than likely, Schell said, high-speed rail will eventually serve both the La Crosse and Eau Claire areas.

"It's really a matter of who will get it first," she said. "We'll keep telling them that this is the best route to do first."

The second part of potential rail service is a commuter line from this area into the Twin Cities, Schell said. The possible train line would help to alleviate some of the congestion that builds up on Interstate 94 and Hwy. 36 during the morning and afternoon commutes.

Beyond the questions surrounding the future of rail service in western Wisconsin, Schell said officials will also be discussing transit feeder systems like buses that would bring passengers to and from the train stations along the proposed route.

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