Free Tuesday Trends sample: Passenger rail rising, WEDC mixed and BioLink falling

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RISING

Passenger rail: Throughout the still-ongoing debate over the role of rail in Wisconsin’s transportation network, leaders on both sides of the issue have steadfastly maintained their support for the Hiawatha line run by Amtrak between Milwaukee and Chicago. And for the ninth time in the last decade, the line reports a record number of riders in the last calendar year. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 832,500 passengers utilized the Hiawatha line run in 2012, up from 823,163 in 2011. The line — the busiest in the Midwest and the sixth busiest in the country — also reported monthly ridership records in eight months last year.

MIXED

WEDC: The state’s embattled economic development agency finally gets a permanent CEO following the departure of Paul Jadin last year. But the governor’s decision to remove the word “interim” from Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO Reed Hall’s title brings more questions than praise from observers. Many wonder whether the Walker administration would have been better off keeping the former Department of Commerce, noting that it would have kept the ability to manage virtually all economic development at will without scrutiny from a bipartisan board. Walker critics, meanwhile, knock the cost of an ultimately unnecessary national CEO search process and say Hall, a former Marshfield Clinic executive, lacks the economic development credentials needed to bolster the WEDC. Hall’s supporters, meanwhile, argue he’ll prove in the end to be the right pick ahead of three finalists identified during the search process, and say the pick is a sign Hall helped the agency weather a tough transition period. Hall takes a hit, however, this week after reports show he sought $200 million from the state’s pension program for a proposed venture capital fund — a request that was rejected by the State of Wisconsin Investment Board.

FALLING

BioLink: In 2010, the federal government awarded a $4.5 million grant to the city of Madison to develop what was intended to be a landmark research park for the agriculture and biology sectors. But after failing to acquire enough tenants or funding to cover a cost shortfall, the city informs the feds that it will begin the process of refusing the grant. The BioLink Center — which was projected to cost between $7 million and $9 million — was aimed at luring entrepreneurs and researchers to 28.6 acres of property on Madison’s southeast side that the city had purchased in 2007. But Madison Mayor Paul Soglin now says the city “attempted to do a little more than it could deliver” with the project, and the city’s economic development director says it’s moving to voluntarily terminate the federal agreement to keep future hopes for grant money alive.