Railway renovation is really on a roll
JANESVILLE The Wisconsin & Southern Railroad doesn't need to wait until 2030 to experience the increasing freight demand that industry pundits are forecasting.
The Milwaukee-based railroad already is running more traffic on several of its lines and is expecting a 35 percent increase in the tonnage it hauls on its Janesville to Monroe line by 2013.
By the end of the month, WSOR will wrap up the first phase of a rehabilitation project that will help the railroad meet the demands of more customers for more freight deliveries in a more efficient fashion.
The project includes 40,000 new railroad ties and 18,000 tons of granite rock ballast. It required a crew of 30 employees working throughout the summer and fall.
"What we've done this year is the surface work," said Ken Lucht, WSOR's manager of community development. "The next phase will take place in 2013 when we lay continuous-welded rail on the line."
The line currently has lighter, jointed rail that was laid more than 80 years ago, Lucht said. The shift to a heavier rail will allow trains to increase their speed from 10 mph to 25 mph and carry heaver loads.
"It will result in much more reliable service," he said.
Wisconsin & Southern is Wisconsin's second-largest railroad with more than 600 miles of track owned cooperatively by the state and 18 southern Wisconsin counties. Much of that track is far below industry standards for carrying cars that weigh 286,000 pounds.
Still, WSOR is a major player in Rock County, where last year alone it had 200 employees who handled more than 9,000 rail cars.
This year, WSOR will transport nearly 500,000 tons of ethanol, grain, carbon dioxide, feed products, sand and gravel over the line. Trains run three days a week or on customer demand.
"Our customer base is growing, and as they come out of the recession, we're seeing customers who may have shipments two days a week asking for shipments three or five days a week," Lucht said. "We will continue to work with the state and counties as partners to rebuild the rail system.
"The national estimates call for a 75 percent increase in freight tonnage by 2030, and some of that will certainly apply to our area so the system needs to be ready."
Local economic development officials have said that more than one-third of the inquiries they get from prospective businesses are interested in rail service.
And if fuel prices remain high, freight rail will continue to be a competitive alternative to over-the-road trucking.
The cost for the first phase of work between Janesville and Monroe is $4.2 million, 80 percent of which is being paid by a state grant. The balance is being split equally between the Pecatonica Rail Transit Commission and WSOR.
The railroad unsuccessfully sought federal stimulus funding for the project. Had it been successful, WSOR would have moved almost immediately to the rail upgrade between Janesville and Monroe.
Despite all of the talk swirling around the future of high-speed rail in Wisconsin and Governor-elect Scott Walker's efforts to divert funding to other projects, Lucht said WSOR has not received any indications that some of the federal money would be diverted to freight rail projects.
WSOR also is nearing completion on the first phase of work on the 31-mile line between Milton and Madison. Crews this year laid about 14 miles of 115-pound welded rail. The remainder will be put down next year, Lucht said.
Wisconsin Republicans want states to have alternatives for high-speed rail money
Three Republican congressmen from Wisconsin have introduced a bill that would give states the option of returning federal funds that are earmarked for high-speed rail projects.
The bill introduced Tuesday would let states redirect the money to the U.S. Treasury toward reducing the national debt.
The legislation was introduced by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan and Tom Petri. They say it would give states flexibility in prioritizing how tax dollars are spent.
Their bill could be relevant in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker has said he doesn't want the $810 million that has been allocated for Wisconsin's high-speed rail project.
The federal government says if the money isn't used for high-speed rail in Wisconsin, it'll be used for high-speed rail in another state.
"We share Governor-elect Scott Walker's commitment to improving Wisconsin's transportation infrastructure and his efforts to bring fiscal responsibility back to our state and the federal government," the three said in a statement. "Instead of being told by bureaucrats in Washington how to allocate their resources, states need to have the flexibility and authority to prioritize how tax dollars are being spent.
"However, the Obama Administration's stimulus package does not allow these stimulus funds to be reprogrammed for other worthwhile transportation projects."
The representatives said their legislation would give states the ability to return federal funds obligated to high-speed rail projects and instead use the money to reduce the nation's $1.6 trillion deficit.
"This high-speed rail project is a bad investment for taxpayers, and our state simply cannot afford it," the three said.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin said that with this new legislation the three Republican lawmakers have acknowledged that Walker's plan to divert the money to road projects would never fly.
"What a rare act of political courage for a career politician like Paul Ryan to wait until after an election to acknowledge that Scott Walker was lying all along," said Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.