Now that the cash has been officially awarded for a high-speed rail line from Milwaukee to Madison, residents pushing to have the station at the Yahara River by East Washington Avenue, instead of the airport, are hoping officials will see the wisdom of their argument.
"The interest level has really grown," says Patrick McDonnell, former president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association and a member of Campaign for Yahara Station. "There was always a certain level of 'we might not get the money, so why should we think about it?' This moves us from the hypothetical to the real."
Last month, the federal government awarded $810 million to the state to build a high-speed line from Milwaukee to Madison. The application called for the Madison station to be located at the Dane County Regional Airport, but many have questioned that logic, calling for the station to be located downtown. (See Madison.gov, 9/3/2009, and TheDailyPage.com Forum.)
One recent convert to the Yahara Station stop is Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. He now deems Yahara "the best location," but adds, "I also think it's possible a station at Yahara and a station at the airport might complement each other."
Cieslewicz says he understands from his talks with Gov. Jim Doyle and state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi that the station location isn't yet set in stone.
"My sense of it, from talking to the governor and the secretary, is they're less focused on a particular location than making sure we get it done on time," he says. "I don't want to do anything that interferes with that goal."
But Cieslewicz thinks there's much to commend a station at Yahara, especially the possibility of spurring economic development along East Washington Avenue.
"That's been ripe for a renaissance for many years, but we've been looking for a spark," he says. "And I think this could be the spark."
Chris Klein, executive assistant at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, says the current plan is to have the station at the Dane County Regional Airport, although that could change.
The state DOT is the lead agency in building the line and will have final say on where stations are located. Dick Wagner, a member of the recently created Dane County Regional Transportation Authority, says DOT doesn't "operate in a vacuum, so they'll be talking to folks" about station location and other issues.
Wagner says the advantage of having the station at the airport is that it already has ample parking. "You have to have sufficient parking so folks have a chance to change modes," he says. "Very few people will actually walk to the station."
Neighborhood activist McDonnell disputes that reasoning, saying there's ample land for parking at the Yahara Station site, which would also have better connections to other transportation modes.
"If you have a location that's only accessible by car, then you need more parking. But if you have a location accessible by multiple modes, the number of parking spaces you need per customer is lower," he says. "You can set yourself up for needing more parking by having a car-only location."
He adds that the economic development possibilities at Yahara, which is in a TIF district, are too great to pass up. "We also think people coming to Madison on the train are not coming to Madison to fly out of the airport," he says. "There isn't a customer synergy to the Amtrak station and the airport."
A community meeting of neighborhoods around Yahara - and the three council members who represent them - is being set up for later this month.
Klein says the next steps are finalizing plans, getting an agreement with the Federal Rail Administration, interviewing consultants and performing environmental impact studies. The state hopes to start construction late this year, with the first trains running in January 2013.
Cieslewicz has his staff looking at proposals for Yahara and gathering information. "Ultimately," he says, "it's going to be DOT's decision. We just have to make a good case for it."