JANESVILLE

It will take at least a year of planning, but a congested, half-mile-long stretch of state-owned railroad track through downtown Janesville is in line for $11.6 million worth of improvements.

A state Department of Transportation rail and harbor official said a $6.6 million federal transportation grant will fuel more than half the cost of upgrades that will allow the state to increase per-rail car weight limits for trains that share a 2-mile-long section of public railroad.

Lisa Stern, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s chief of railroads and harbors, said the railroad line’s operator, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, and the line’s owner, the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission, plans to match a grant released this week to the state to rework five railroad crossings and a half-mile of track in an area that spans the gravel pits just south of the Janesville landfill to the downtown riverfront.

The big-ticket project, moving into a yearlong design phase, will include a major overhaul and replacement of track and the superstructure itself on the single-track railroad bridge that spans the Rock River just north of the Centerway bridge.

That and other upgrades to other sections of track and crossings north of downtown also would allow the transportation of heavier loads on the rail lines.

Major rail spurs for both WSOR and Union Pacific split off in the center of Janesville, making the city and its downtown rail terminal area an important link between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Thousands of tons a day of corn and grain, ethanol, frack sand, plastics, and other commodities farmed, mined and produced in Wisconsin traverse the Janesville spur each day. But Stern said the state downgraded weight limits on the Janesville segment of track since 2017, both because of the age and condition of the track and the crossings.

“The bridges in that area were mode restricted to 263,000 pounds five years ago. That’s a standard thing that is done on rail bridges that are older. They lower the amount of weight that can cross on them, and then what happens is the train can’t be filled all the way to the top. You’re not maximizing the efficiency for the shippers,” she said, adding, “They end up paying more because they have to (use) more rail cars for the same amount of goods.”

The project will upgrade the rail crossings at North Parker Drive, North Main Street, North Franklin Street, boosting the weight ratings about 10% to a 286,000-pound capacity, which Stern said is the “standard” weight limit for freight on the public line.

Stern said designs aren’t available yet, and the project probably won’t start until 2023, but she said the work likely will replace existing track and could reduce bottlenecks—including where the track crosses Highway 14 at an angle at Kennedy Road and Highway 14.

The project has been on the state’s radar since a study in 2006 identified Janesville as the location of two of 12 places where weight limits on publicly owned track need to be addressed to meet market standards for heavier rail cars.

The city’s own Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization listed the work as among rail projects to tackle over the next 40 years.

Stern said that the federal grant funding—part of a transportation infrastructure grant program called Rebuilding American Infrastructure and Equity—is highly competitive, with only about 680 projects funded out of some 10,000 applications since 2009.

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