Looming east side rail corridor upgrade poses challenges

Monday, May 24, 2010

From an article by Matthew DeFour in the Wisconsin State Journal:

Like many Madison east siders, Leslie Schroeder enjoys the "livability" of her neighborhood - the safety, the quiet, the close-knit community and the easily walkable connections to nearby schools, cafes and other businesses.

So when the state recently announced passenger rail would come into Downtown Madison, Schroeder had concerns.

"Almost everybody in this neighborhood wants high-speed rail from Madison to Milwaukee, but some neighbors will bear the burden of it, while others will not," Schroeder said. "We need to do what we can to mitigate the noise or divisive impacts."

Just like with the creation of a Downtown Madison train station, the state and city face several challenges in upgrading the east side rail corridor.

With six passenger trains coming and going each day starting in early 2013, the amount of rail traffic on the east side rail corridor will quadruple.

The stretch of track from Interstate 39/90/94 to Monona Terrace includes more than twice as many street crossings than on the East Coast's entire Boston to Washington high-speed rail line.

How fast the trains will travel within city limits remains unknown, though Tom Running, a state rail safety analyst, estimated it could be 30 mph, triple the current limit on freight trains.

State Department of Transportation executive assistant Chris Klein said the department will support closing at least two streets on the east side to facilitate the train. Wisconsin and Southern Railroad had already asked the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads to close Blount, Livingston and Brearly streets but the city is opposed to any closings. A hearing on those closings was postponed once it was known the passenger rail line could come Downtown.

The city also wants to add a new pedestrian crossing at Few Street to access the planned Central Park.

The city had previously looked into relocating a stretch of track that cuts through Central Park, but found it would be too expensive. Janet Piraino, chief of staff for Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, said it would be nice if the state moved the tracks as part of the upgrade to high-speed rail compatible tracks, but it's unclear if that will be possible.

The Central Park project is temporarily on hold until the state determines what kind of fencing will be installed along the route through Madison, said Joe Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Central Park task force.

Residents worry that fencing could cut off some backyards, pedestrian walkways and community gardens. There are also questions about litter collection and the safety of anyone who trespasses into the corridor from one of the many street crossings, said Peng Her, executive director of the East Isthmus Neighborhoods Planning Council.