Rail bridge in Sauk City

The railroad bridge across the Wisconsin River in Sauk City has been in disrepair since 2002. Wisconsin & Southern Railroad announced Aug. 17 it would release its rights to the bridge and allow local governments to use it as part of a planned recreational trail.

Kim Lamoreaux/Sauk Prairie Eagle

The proposed route of the Great Sauk Trail has expanded to include the defunct rail bridge over the Wisconsin River in Sauk City.

At a Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission ad hoc committee meeting in Prairie du Sac on Aug. 17, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad director of government relations Ken Lucht said the company would extend the conversion of rail line to trail at milepost 7.3, just north of Fuch’s Trucking Company on Highway 78.

“That would include the bridge in the conversion,” Lucht said. “So instead of being entirely in Sauk County, it would include northern Dane County for about a half mile on the other side of the river.”

Prior to the announcement, the trail’s first segment was to start on the Sauk City side of the rail bridge and wind 5.2 miles on the existing unused rail bed through Sauk City and Prairie du Sac to the southern boundary of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area in the town of Merrimac.

The rail bridge on Water Street has been in disrepair since 2002.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach and state Rep. Dave Considine both encouraged the committee to consider extending the trail into Dane County. Sauk County Board Chair Mary Krueger hailed the arrangement.

“This is momentous,” he said. “Not being able to get across the river doesn’t get the economic impact this trail is supposed to have. They moved the mile post for the conversion and that’s huge.”

Krueger leads the Great Sauk Trail Commission and has served on the rail transit commission as an alternate for Carol Held, who has been too ill to attend.

Wisconsin & Southern’s rail line lease agreement with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is in effect until 2047.

The extension of the trail conversion would have to be part of an amended lease agreement with the DOT. After that, the DOT and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must file a statement of willingness to take over the unused rail line with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board giving the authority of the trail to the DNR.

Once completed, a rails-to-trails agreement between the DOT and the DNR can be established, leaving the DNR as the sponsor of the trail, which will then contract with Sauk County for maintenance and management.

A Friends of the Great Sauk Trail group is working to raise funds that can be added to start-up contributions of the villages of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, which each pledged $207,500 each for the project. Sauk County also agreed to contribute $207,500, with the town of Prairie du Sac chipping in another $10,000.

In September, the trail group was awarded $400,000 from the DNR’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship fund.

The Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs has supported the extension of the trail over the bridge into Dane County.

Sam Landes, executive director of the snowmobile group, said he was encouraged by Lucht’s announcement, but said there still is a lot of paperwork to get through before a trail is a reality.

“A very great first step happened,” Landes said. “But it’s only a first step. The Great Sauk Trail will have an even stronger impact.”

Landes said it was too soon to estimate potential costs to repair the bridge and widen it for a recreational path.

Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Tywana German said bike trail studies in similar communities show that a one-day user of a trail could generate about $100 in additional business per day. She said the research shows a potential annual impact of between $2 million and $5 million.

Follow Kim Lamoreaux on Twitter @kimlamoreaux1

News reporter, Capital Newspapers