Skip to main content

Passenger train service envisioned for Green Bay

Local leaders highlight benefits for all aspects of the region’s economy

share arrow printer bookmark flag

August 29, 2022

GREEN BAY – Green Bay as a railroad passenger hub – not as impractical as you’d think.

That’s the opinion of Brian Johnson, executive director of On Broadway, Inc. and current Green Bay City Council vice president.

“If we start talking about it and we start putting the puzzle pieces in place, this is something that could happen here in Green Bay.”

The idea was brought to the forefront by Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich during his 2022 State of the City address July 28.
During the address, Genrich said he envisions passenger train service that would connect the Greater Green Bay area to Milwaukee and beyond.

“Ultimately, I think this soon-to-be former coal pile site would be an ideal location for an Amtrak station in downtown Green Bay,” he said during his address.

But, for all the promise passenger rail brings, will it ever come to our neck of the woods?

Many say not as far-fetched as you’d think.

A piece of the pie

The bipartisan infrastructure law passed in November designated about $65 billion to expand passenger rail across the country.

Northeast Wisconsin could get part of that.

The proposed Amtrak ConnectsUS plan includes extending the Hiawatha commuter line, which links Chicago with Milwaukee, up to Green Bay.

It proposes three round trips between Green Bay and Chicago daily, with stops in Appleton, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. 

The expansion is estimated to bring $70 million annually to the region’s economy, plus $1.8 billion in one-time capital investments, according to the plan.

It cites major corporations, multiple colleges and hospital systems and Lambeau Field as assets drawing people to the area, and lists the Southern Bridge Connector project in De Pere as demonstrating growth.

“The expansion of passenger rail and freight transportation, along with the Southern Bridge Connector project, would be incredible additions to this area,” De Pere Mayor James Boyd said. “The City of De Pere supports the expansion on Amtrak to this area and hopes someday it will become a reality.”

Boyd pointed to a recent community services survey of De Pere residents, which showed 92% support sustainability measures, including sustainable transportation. 

“The Amtrak proposal and expansion provides a more sustainable mode of transportation,” Boyd said. “There are many benefits for not just the everyday citizen, but all aspects of the economic engine of this entire region.”

Genrich said he believes this is “exactly the kind of anchor we need in this corner of the community to spur even more growth and invite even more visitors to this soon-to-be revitalized area of our city.”

He said the site – which is south of Main, Walnut and Mason streets – is perfect, because it skirts around a pet peeve practically everyone shares: waiting to cross the bridge while a train chuffs by.

Johnson said he believes a train station would help spur development and energize the downtown.

“Businesses want to be around people,” he said. “Residents want to have close access to amenities like rail, so I think it could be a good thing for the downtown area and the city as a whole.”

Johnson said property around train stations tends to be prime for development, with disembarking passengers wanting a place to eat or shop nearby. 

“You are always trying to get the highest and best use out of that, and that oftentimes is dictated by the volume of people you have going through an area,” he said. “A commuter train would certainly contribute to the value of that.”

Hot potato

Frank Ingram of the NEW Rails advocacy group said passenger rail in Wisconsin has had a rocky time of it since at least 2010 when the last plan to bring it here in the form of high-speed rail got scuppered.

Plans for high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee were underway, thanks to around $810 million in federal stimulus money to Wisconsin, an effort to assuage the effects of the recession.

Ingram said he moved to Wisconsin from England two years prior and promptly got involved in the cause for public transportation.

Ingram said his group had two aims: One was to get the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) to take notice of Green Bay and extend service north. The other?

“To make the plan less ambitious, which sounds contrary,” he said. “But we wanted a plan that would happen.”

The rail plan the WisDOT gave priority to Madison and Milwaukee, which Ingram said became a hot topic within the 2010 gubernatorial race but was later put on pause.

“The whole discussion became moot,” Ingram said. “Things went very quiet.”

A new day dawns

Ingram said it came as a pleasant surprise last year when he found out the most recent plan includes extending service up to Green Bay.

The current plan, however, calls for passenger rail, not high-speed rail, which he said would have required a lot more construction.

The typical Amtrak train travels under 100 mph, with the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago between 79 and 100 mph.

It’s also along a current railroad corridor, operated by Canadian Northern and Canadian Pacific railroads, so it avoids the problem of eminent domain that has stymied some plans by other states, like one in California.

“It would be a tremendous benefit for businesses and residents who are interested in getting to Milwaukee via rail,” Genrich said, adding that the regional economy could benefit from having several stops within that corridor: Appleton, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, down to Sturtevant, and two in Milwaukee, including one at General Mitchell International Airport. 

This photograph shows the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad passenger train stopped in downtown Green Bay in 1952. Photo courtesy of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County

He said the proposed plan would also finally link Milwaukee with Madison.

“There’s a lot of commuting that occurs within that region, which has a population of about a million people,” Genrich said.

Jeff Mirkes, Downtown Green Bay, Inc. and Olde Main Street, Inc. executive director, said improving the quality of regional public transportation could motivate people to relocate to the area to enjoy the quality of life in Northeast Wisconsin.

“Amtrak service to Northeast Wisconsin would be attractive to residents, tourists and football fans,” Mirkes said, adding that the net economic impact would be positive. 

Mirkes said feedback he’s received from young professionals in the area is positive, aside from some concern for the planet first and foremost. 

“For people of all ages, it would reduce the dependency on auto use,” he said. “And as highways get busier, it would eliminate the headache of highway congestion. (Young professionals) would like a convenient alternative to traveling to bigger cities in the Midwest.”

Given that it wouldn’t be high-speed rail and wouldn’t necessarily save travel time, Brad Toll, CEO of Discover Green Bay, said one appeal would be the nostalgia factor of train travel and the relaxing pace.

“The corridor between Milwaukee and Green Bay is heavily traveled,” he said. “I do believe it will be used, as it is a lot less stressful sitting on a train reading than driving.”

As for economic impact, Toll said that would be hard to predict without projected passenger numbers and demographics.
“It is definitely worth having the conversation,” he said. 

Johnson put it in starker terms.

“The reality is expansion is going to happen,” he said. “Expansion is happening around the country. At the end of the day, we just have to decide if we want to let that expansion pass us by, or if we want to strategically put ourselves in a position to potentially have the location come to Green Bay. I think everybody agrees that we would like to be in that position.”

share arrow printer bookmark flag

Trending View All Trending