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Fast train fares won't be that high, Wisc. DOT official says

(The following story by Larry Sandler appeared on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website on March 8, 2010.)

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — High-speed rail critics are overstating the fare likely to be charged on a planned train line connecting Milwaukee and Madison, a top state Department of Transportation official says.

In its application for federal stimulus money for the planned route, the DOT projected fares would range from $20 to $33 one-way. After the federal government awarded the state $810 million to build the route, critics seized on the top end of the fare range, which would be $66 round trip, to bolster their view that the train would be too expensive to attract riders.

But in a recent interview, Chris Klein, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, said riders wouldn't pay a $33 fare "unless it includes dinner and drinks." The high-end figure was developed before state officials knew the federal grant would cover the full cost of the project, including buying trains, which will avoid the operating costs of renting them from Amtrak, Klein said.

Transportation officials expect the actual fare will be closer to the low end of the range and comparable to the fare for Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line, which now charges $22 each way, Klein said. The Milwaukee-to-Madison route will operate as an extension of the Hiawatha, for which ridership dipped 3% last year but is rebounding with the economy, an Amtrak spokesman has said.

In another matter, Klein said extending the train to downtown Madison would take it through a total of 26 grade crossings from the Dane County Regional Airport to Monona Terrace and back, clarifying his earlier statement that about 40 crossings might be involved.

Slowing the train for grade crossings is a significant issue in the debate over whether the Madison train station should be located downtown, instead of at the airport as now planned. The DOT fears the trip downtown would add too much time to the trip, particularly if the trains eventually are extended to the Twin Cities. Critics of the airport site say ridership would drop if the station isn't downtown.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

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