Amtrak’s Green Bay proposal faces many stops along the route
By John McCracken
GREEN BAY – The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, recently released its vision to expand into 160 different communities around the country, including Green Bay.
Amtrak’s proposal would provide new passenger rail services for Green Bay, Madison and Eau Claire with regional expansions into the Twin Cities, Duluth, Minnesota and Rockford, Illinois.
Amtrak was originally established by the Congressional Rail Passenger Service Act and left its first station in 1971.
Six years later, the Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers formed to plan, advocate and educate the public around the benefits of passenger trains.
Frank Ingram of Howard, is a board member of the 600-member, dues-paying organization, focusing on rail lines in the Greater Green Bay and Fox Valley area.
Ingram said people in the industry and other board members were surprised at the level of detail Amtrak provided in its newest proposal.
The proposal hinges on President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan unveiled at the end of March.
Ingram said Green Bay is in a good position to make passenger rail a reality, because the city could connect to stations north of Fond du Lac.
However, he said relying on existing Canadian National rails has potential downsides.
“(Canadian National’s main line) is in very good condition, but by American standards it’s a busy line, which means that you have to do work to put in passing sidings and may be starting off with a more limited service than you’d like,” said Ingram.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s 2021 Railroads and Harbors map, Canadian National, the parent company of Wisconsin Central Limited and the Sault St. Marie Railroad, owns nearly every railway to or from Green Bay.
As of Dec. 31, 2019, Canadian National operates 1,428 route miles in Wisconsin and lists sand, coal and lumber as the state’s top commodities.
Ingram said the expansions of passenger rail could provide upgrades beneficial to freight companies.
“Usually where you’ve got passenger trains operating, the standard of the line goes up,” he said. “You can actually operate more freight over the same line.”
Passenger rail service used to be an option for Green Bay residents with a stop at the Chicago and North Western Railway Passenger Depot, the historic Dousman Street building by Titletown Brewing Co.
The last passenger train to leave the Chicago and North Western depot left in 1971, but the rails are still used for freight travel.
According to Wisconsin Department of Transportation studies from 2006, the Fox Valley Line Station would provide 131,974 trips to Green Bay, among other cities in the region, with a total of over half a million trips annually.
Ingram said this figure does not include the traffic generated from towns and villages along the route.
To make passenger rail possible in Green Bay, he said people need to be prepared to take action to support Amtrak’s expansion.
“It’s not going to happen if people just think it’s going to happen,” Ingram said.
The project’s biggest benefit to Ingram is the economic development in the Midwest, which he said is driven by Chicagoland.
“Green Bay can either be the first place beyond Chicagoland, and not really connected to it, or it can be the outer part of Chicagoland economically,” he said.
Ingram said Wisconsin’s rocky past with rails – such as former Gov. Scott Walker’s cancellation of the decades-in-the-making, high-speed passenger line between Madison and Milwaukee – is reason for residents to get ahead of the curve and support the project.
“There were places that campaigned against the Erie Canal, and you’ve never heard of them,” he said. “There’s a reason.”
Ingram said there have been no studies of the impact adding passenger service to Green Bay would have on the environment.
“Experience shows that such studies invariably show positive benefits through reduced motor vehicle traffic,” he said.
If we build it, will they come?
Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich has been a recent, vocal supporter of adding passenger lines to Green Bay.
“There are some pretty major benefits just for everyday citizens,” said Genrich. “The ability to hop on the train and get down to Milwaukee safely and conveniently on a passenger train is pretty attractive.”
He said the ability to connect the “mega-region” of Northeast Wisconsin and boost economic development in Green Bay is the biggest benefit his office sees out of the Amtrak proposal.
“I think that (Amtrak’s proposal) offers real benefits for businesses who are interested in trying to get their employees up and down the region, and for residents who want to be mobile and able to travel easily and safely between the cities and Northeast Wisconsin,” said Genrich.
He said he believes the expansion is in line with the city’s environmental goals, because passenger rail provides a more sustainable mode of transportation compared to single-occupancy vehicles.
“This is a basic mode of transportation that we are lacking and have lacked for nearly 50 years,” said Genrich. “So, I think there’s a lot of pent-up enthusiasm to have passenger rail returning to the City of Green Bay.”
Genrich, like Ingram, said residents who want passenger rail service should contact the region’s congressional delegation and senators to let them know there’s support of this expansion.
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, who represents Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
State Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard) said in the short term, passenger rail is a “low priority” for his office based on a lack of utilization.
“One of the challenges that these projects have had in the past is they’ve gone into them with a ‘if we build it, they will come’ [attitude] and that rarely has panned out,” said Steffen.
Two Wisconsin examples of lack of ridership came to his mind: Milwaukee’s The Hop Streetcar and a previous Village of Howard proposal to expand public bus transportation.
“There has to be a well-documented community want there before some of these things occur,” said Steffen.
He said his constituents haven’t reached out regarding the Amtrak proposal.
State Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) said passenger rail is a regionally transformative issue to improve economic security for working families, small businesses and community organizations.
“We are home to a shore of ports that connect the Midwest and the West to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond,” Shelton said. “This project can unite the Great Lakes region and beyond with culture, commerce and community.”
She recently introduced a joint resolution alongside State Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) dubbed the Economic Justice Bill of Rights for all Wisconsinites.
The resolution is a broad look at issues impacting working people in the state such as health care, affordable housing, clean drinking water and sustainable transportation.
Shelton said the expansion of Amtrak to Green Bay and other cities aligns with this mission, but will likely meet hurdles along the way, such as the American Jobs Plan’s $80 billion price tag for rail expansion.
“Wisconsinites may be apprehensive about this once-in-a-generation investment,” she said. “It’s important, however, to recognize the magnitude of the moment as we collectively face the disastrous effects of climate change and significant income inequities across the country and Wisconsin.”