EVANSVILLE — Evansville leaders are more than nostalgic about the city's 150-year history with railroads; they see rail as a way to attract new industry and help existing businesses grow.
Reopening the out-of-service line that runs north through Brooklyn and Oregon to Madison would open more markets, and promoting the existing line that runs southeast to Janesville could help develop the city's business park, leaders said.
The city's economic development committee has budgeted about $5,000 to study what it would take to open the northern corridor and to look at what businesses the city could attract to the southeastern line, committee chairman Jim Brooks said.
"We are looking at the resource that we have here in Evansville of undeveloped land along the rail corridor," he said.
The direction of the study depends on a proposal by Wisconsin & Southern Railroad and the communities of Fitchburg and Oregon to reopen the line north of Evansville.
The only rail cars moving in and out of Evansville use the track southeast of the city.
It's been years since cars rolled north out of Evansville, and in Brooklyn the tracks have been removed from crossings at Highway 104 and Highway 92.
Part of the line north of the city is being used to store rail cars owned or leased by Union Pacific Railroad. The cars are visible from Lake Leota Park near downtown Evansville.
When the economy slows and cars aren't needed, "we have to find a home for them," said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific. "Typically they are moved to underused lines in a place like this."
The line running southeast to Janesville is used by Nelson-Young Lumber and Landmark Services Cooperative.
Landmark ships about 225 cars a month from its facility on the city's southeast side, sending most of its corn to the Texas and Arkansas poultry markets and beans to Mexico or Gulf of Mexico ports for export, said Fred Johnson, grain operations manager at Landmark.
Evansville could piggyback on a proposal to reopen the rail line from Oregon to the north.
Oregon and Fitchburg bought the section of track from just north of Evansville to Fitchburg in 1999 when the municipalities talked about a joint business park, said Mark Below, director of Oregon public works. The park plan fizzled, but rail plans re-emerged recently when Lycon, a concrete and building supply company, bought 80 acres in Oregon for a new plant.
One of Lycon's conditions for building its new facility in Oregon was access to rail for delivery of raw materials, Below said. The Lycon building is under construction while the municipalities work with Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, which has applied for a state grant to help pay for the improvements needed to open the line, he said.
Wisconsin & Southern estimates $2.8 million is needed to replace 40 percent of the ties, rebuild crossings and a couple bridges, said Ken Lucht, director of government relations for the railroad. A grant through the Wisconsin Department of Transportation could provide 80 percent of the funding, with the railroad picking up the rest, he said.
Final word on the grant is expected about July 1, after the state budget is finalized. The hope is to complete the improvements over summer and open by fall.
The project, however, does not include restoring rail service south of Oregon, Lucht said. The railroad's service ends about a mile north of Evansville.
Potential in Evansville
Evansville officials are waiting to see if the northern rail line project gets a green light. If so, they could focus on improvements needed between Evansville and the Lycon plant in Oregon.
Lucht said he has not talked with Evansville leaders, "but we're certainly happy to sit down and have a conversation with the city and learn what their plans are."
Nicole Sidoff, Evansville community development director, is working on a proposal to hire a consultant to study the track mile-by-mile, she said.
Restoring rail access north of Evansville could open new markets for Landmark, Johnson said.
"This would open up the opportunity to possibly ship to Wisconsin ethanol plants or Chicago, which today is currently cost prohibitive," he said.
If the Oregon/Fitchburg project stalls, Brooks said Evansville would study how to attract businesses to its Union Pacific line.
Companies dealing in heavy commodities rather than finished goods are a good match for rail, Brooks said.
"Finding those companies and attracting them to that land along our rail corridor is an important part of economic development in Evansville," he said.
Union Pacific has an industrial development team that helps cities interested in exploring options along rail lines, Davis said.
Union Pacific in 2011 spent $35,000 on the end of its line north of Evansville and last year invested $2.7 million in on the section from Harvard, Ill., to Evansville, Davis said.
Rail service to Evansville started in 1863, when the Beloit-to-Madison service started running through the, Brooks said.
The city is planning events July 19 and July 20 to celebrate the 150th anniversary.
At one point, Evansville was the second-largest stockyard in the state, mostly for shipping sheep into Chicago, Brooks said.
"We definitely have a history of railroad here," Sidoff said. "It's something that really has driven the economy here or been a piece of the economy and something we're interested in building upon in the future."