By Ryan Spoehr - April 27th 2023
Rock County will form an ad hoc committee to explore passenger rail development in the county.
County Supervisor Jim Farrell of Janesville, who drafted a resolution that was approved by the county board two weeks ago, said the ad hoc committee will work with the cities of Janesville and Beloit to examine the potential of rail expansion.
The county sent a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration in September with hopes of securing a rail stop in the county either in Janesville or Beloit to connect to Madison and Milwaukee via Amtrak.
Farrell and County Administrator Josh Smith have met with representatives from the High Speed Rail Alliance, a group lobbying for passenger rail expansion. The resolution said passenger rail expansion through Rock County is “more likely” to be through Metra routes from Chicago and its northwest suburbs.
According to its website, the High Speed Rail Alliance is pushing for the U.S. Department of Transportation to add 20% more new high-speed lines with 80% of the country’s existing lines being upgraded for “faster, more frequent, passenger and freight trains.” It is a part of a “national railroad expansion program” that also includes buses and planes working together to serve “thousands of communities,” according to its website.
The Federal Railroad Administration has developed the Midwest Regional Rail Plan, which will upgrade and increase rail service through the Midwest using Chicago as the hub to Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, Detroit and St. Louis. The plan outlines a high-speed route from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to the Twin Cities.
A route from Chicago to Rockford to Madison through Rock County was not included in the plan, but the alliance said on its website that it’s an “important” route to study.
“There have been a number of studies pertaining to rail studies that have been completed, and I think this ad hoc committee would be very appropriate to review these opportunities and to get a joint effort between Janesville and Beloit to attain rail service in Rock County,” Farrell said.
At the time the letter was sent to the Federal Railroad Administration, some county board members raised concerns about rail service between Janesville and Chicago that was put in place in 2000 and 2001, and soon discontinued for lack of use.
County Supervisor Mike Zoril of Beloit said he was appreciative of the resolution, stating that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a large supply of crude oil meant to avoid disruptions in petroleum supplies in the U.S., is emptying and he is concerned about rising fuel costs.
“There may come a time when it’s too expensive to drive anywhere and we’ll need those trains to go to our jobs, so I think it’s a good idea,” Zoril said.
County Supervisor Rick Richard, who represents several townships near Janesville and Beloit, said he couldn’t support the resolution because of concerns where the funding would come from if a rail expansion would occur in the county.
Richard also questioned whether farmland would be used to accommodate expansion, which Farrell couldn’t answer. However, Farrell said it could be an item addressed by the ad hoc committee.
Another county board member voicing disapproval was Kim Schneider, who represents part of the city of Beloit and the town of Turtle.
“I have a concern of crime coming up from Chicago, and Beloit being situated between 43 and 90,” Schneider said.
Seven members are expected to be on the ad hoc committee, including three from the county board and four community members with “knowledge of passenger rail.” All members will be appointed by the county board chair, according to the resolution.
The ad hoc committee, per the resolution, will sunset after April 2024, but the county board may reauthorize the committee if deemed necessary.
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