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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

County seeks answers on rail issues: chair calls for coordination of parties

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The chairman of the Sauk County, Wis., Board called for closer coordination between parties involved in railroad projects that could have economic impacts the area, the Baraboo News Republic reports.

"Right now we've got a bunch of bits and pieces of this flying around," said Chairman Marty Krueger of Reedsburg during a meeting of the county board's Economic and Development Committee. He was referring to projects involving railroad bridges, track connections to businesses and the Sauk Prairie area's proposal to convert a section of track into a bike trail.

Discussions about those projects take place during a variety of public meetings, Krueger said. But all interested parties are not always present. He suggested a forum in which all stakeholders could sit at one table and discuss how to form a unified solution to the conflicting proposals.

"I think the county and (the Sauk County Development Corporation) can act as partners in pulling this off," Krueger said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation recently secured an easement for the rail corridor through the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, said SCDC Executive Director Karna Hanna during Monday's meeting. That purchase was necessary for the state to begin talks with the villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac about converting a section of unused track between Mazomanie and Sauk Prairie into a bike trail. The section feeds into a Sauk City bridge that is out, making the aging Merrimac bridge over the Wisconsin River the only rail gateway to several Sauk County communities.

Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Company spokesman Ken Lucht said that a study of the Merrimac bridge's structural integrity, which was partially taxpayer funded, is about 75 percent complete. He said some degree of bridge repair will be necessary, and Wisconsin & Southern has asked the engineering firm completing the study to provide cost estimates for two scenarios. One would include restoring the bridge to its original structural rating, which he said is lower than the threshold modern bridges are designed to meet. The other scenario would include replacing the entire bridge and rebuilding it to meet modern standards. Lucht said it would be possible to allow usage of the bridge while it is being rebuilt by replacing it in sections.

The engineering firm's final report is already about two months behind schedule, and to this point railroad officials have blamed the tardiness on employees in a Florida office contracting the H1N1 "swine" flu.

He said when Wisconsin & Southern receives a final draft, the company will sit down with engineering firm representatives and recommend any changes needed to finalize the report.

Also at issue is Wisconsin & Southern President Bill Gardner's recent statement that he would like to rebuild the bridge at Sauk City in order to serve the United Cooperative plant on Highway 60 in Sauk City. Shipping by rail instead of truck would help save money for area farmers, Lucht said. But it might also jeopardize the rails to trails proposal, and Sauk Prairie government leaders are concerned about rail traffic through a new business park.

Wisconsin & Southern has also offered to allow the Mid-Continent Railway Museum to use the Mazomanie to Sauk City section of track for train tours, which might also threaten rails to trails.

Lucht said it might be possible to lay the bike path next to the track and install a buffer between the two, such as bushes or a fence.