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Friday, January 15, 2010

Wisconsin high-speed rail plan on track

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Wisconsin transportation planners are on a lightning-fast track, feverishly preparing to build the 85-mile, high-speed rail corridor from Milwaukee to Madison when $817.7 million in federal stimulus funding is secured, the Milwaukee Business Journal reports.

The state Department of Transportation's railroad bureau is so confident that its high-speed rail application, submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration last summer, will be approved in the first quarter of 2010 that meetings with engineers, contractors and disadvantaged businesses were held in early January and proposals outlining companies' interest in the project were due to be sent to DOT by Jan. 13.

"We are aggressively planning the work so the corridor can be operating by Jan. 1, 2013," said John Oimoen, the DOT's project manager for the Milwaukee-Madison, high-speed rail line.

In early 2009, the federal government allocated $8 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build 11 high-speed rail lines in the United States. The Milwaukee-Madison line is one of several in the Midwest, augmenting the existing Amtrak service from the Chicago rail hub.

Oimoen said the Federal Railroad Administration has promised to deliver a "letter of intent" for funding the rail initiative to DOT by March 21, enabling the state to begin the contract negotiations with potential engineers, architects and builders. At a DOT high-speed rail meeting Jan. 5 in Pewaukee, more than 200 companies crowded into a conference room at Waukesha County Technical College to learn about the pending project.

"It sounds like Wisconsin is taking the right steps," said Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Kulat said the factors that will determine who gets the federal funding hinge on detailed assessments related to the rail corridor's environmental impact, advanced planning for construction and the project's impact on local employment. Even though the Federal Railroad Administration isn't tipping its hand on who will and won't be funded, Wisconsin is considered a leader in the development of a high-speed rail corridor, Oimoen said.

Wisconsin completed its environmental studies on the corridor's impact in 2004, Oimoen said. The state also is quickly gearing up its planning activities to allow the project to start soon after receiving federal approval.

Infrastructure improvements on the Milwaukee-to-Watertown corridor are estimated to cost $286.1 million. The Watertown-to-Madison portion will require $330.6 million of improvements. The DOT's application also identifies $24.8 million for the construction of four train stations and parking structures.

In addition, the application calls for spending $91.4 million for new train sets that can travel on the high-speed system. There also is $47.6 million allocated for a train inspection and service facility, and $37.2 million committed to environmental work and DOT's management of the project.

There are several large engineering and construction firms with rail development experience that DOT expects to compete for the high-speed rail contracts. They include HNTB Corp., Kansas City, Mo.; HDR Inc., Omaha, Neb.; PDI Rail Solutions, San Antonio; and Walsh Construction Co., Chicago. All of the firms were present at the Jan. 13 workshop where they met with scores of engineering and architectural firms and small companies that qualify as disadvantaged businesses. The Milwaukee-Madison high-speed rail requires that 20 percent of the work be handled by disadvantaged businesses, Oimoen said.

The Madison office of Mead & Hunt Inc. will submit bids to handle environmental assessments of four train stations that will be constructed as part of the project. Mead & Hunt also is in line to compete for some of the public outreach contracts that will be let for the project, said Julie Hoppe, a spokeswoman for the company. American Design Inc., a Milwaukee minority-owned architectural firm, will submit bids for the design of the train stations and the layouts of the parking structures and surface lots, said John Williams, president of the firm.

Williams said his company has worked with HNTB and other large firms on rail projects, including the design of train stations for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail network that's also under development.

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