Nearly four years after Gov. Scott Walker rejected more than $800 million in federal funding to expand passenger rail service in the state, a transportation advocacy group wants to rekindle talks of passenger rail service between Madison and Chicago.
Officials with All Aboard Wisconsin, formed in 2013, have invited local politicians and business leaders to a discussion that would focus on using existing freight lines and would not require federal or state money for passenger trains, which would travel up to 79 mph.
The meeting would be aboard a train excursion from Chicago to Prairie du Chien that is scheduled to stop in Madison on June 21.
“In the last two years, freight rail and passenger rail are feeling the need to cooperate,” said Gary Goyke, a lobbyist and spokesman for All Aboard Wisconsin. “It’s in their best interest to cooperate and use the tracks that are available. There’s a great deal of interest.”
In his invitation, Goyke said “several parties are collaborating to host a passenger rail excursion during which many views will be heard and discussions will take place in a very appropriate setting.”
The email listed Metra, the Chicago commuter rail operator; Iowa Pacific Holdings; The Milwaukee Road; Wisconsin & Southern Railroad; and Iron Horse Travel Corp.
However, Ed Ellis, president of the Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings, a private passenger rail service company that operates in nine states, said he knows nothing of the meeting and that no one from his company, Metra or Wisconsin & Southern Railroad will be involved with the meetings on the train.
The Milwaukee Road, Ellis noted, no longer exists.
Ellis said his company is simply running the excursion train. However, if interested parties want to talk about passenger rail once they board in Madison, he “welcomes the conversation.”
“I have not spoken with Gary Goyke or All Aboard Wisconsin,” Ellis said. “I don’t want to make anyone mad in Wisconsin or Illinois. I just don’t want to be included in a coalition that I wasn’t asked to join.”
Goyke said he was simply acting on the request of Clark Johnson, a rail enthusiast who is a board member of Iowa Pacific Holdings.
“I did what they asked me to do. I’m not trying to mislead anybody,” Goyke said. “I have no desire to give anyone any negative information.”
Goyke and Mike McCoy, president of All Aboard Wisconsin, said details of the operation — including route, costs and potential ridership — have not been formulated.
Donna Brown-Martin, who oversees railroads and harbors for the state Department of Transportation, said she has not been contacted by anyone involved with plans for passenger rail service from Madison to Chicago.
Any plan to use a state-owned rail line would need to be approved by the state and the railroad that leases the line from the state.
The state of Wisconsin owns a rail line operated by Wisconsin & Southern Railroad that runs through McFarland, Stoughton, Edgerton, Janesville, Walworth and to the southeast to the Illinois border.
Wisconsin is served by two passenger Amtrak routes, neither of which includes a stop in Madison. The Hiawatha train runs between Chicago and Milwaukee, while the Empire Builder is a long-distance train operating one round trip a day between Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
Its closest stops to Madison are in Columbus, Portage and Wisconsin Dells.
Goyke’s invitation drew excitement from business and political leaders Wednesday.
Madison Ald. Scott Resnick, 8th District, said he plans to take part in the informational train trip and wants to know more about costs, what type of participation might be needed from the city, the exact route and plans for a Madison train station.
“This won’t be easy to accomplish, but it’s something so many community partners believe in,” Resnick said. “It unleashes a new potential in both economic vitality and cultural experience between Madison and Chicago. Making an easier commute between the two cities unleashes a number of opportunities.”
George Wiesner, general manager of the the 214-room Best Western Inn on the Park on the Capitol Square, said he wants to meet the organizers, listen and “learn their capabilities,” he said.
“I think it would be a great thing,” Wiesner said. “There’s a steady back and forth (between Madison and Chicago), and rail probably has a future in the connectivity of Madison, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul.”
Goyke is a former state senator and longtime lobbyist who has twice run afoul of campaign finance law.
He was convicted of four felonies in 1990 for illegal campaign contributions and was fined in 2009, when he was a lobbyist, for exceeding the $10,000 annual individual limit on contributions to all Wisconsin campaigns.