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Amtrak releases vision that includes stop in Eau Claire
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EAU CLAIRE — “Next stop: Eau Claire.”

Such an announcement on a passenger train — something that’s been missing from the local landscape for nearly six decades — could become a reality if a recently released map from Amtrak becomes a reality.

The government-sponsored national rail network’s Amtrak Connects US vision includes enhanced service on existing train routes in Wisconsin and new service to Eau Claire, Madison and Green Bay.

Regional rail enthusiasts such as Scott Rogers, chairman of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, were fully on board with the new map showing service from Chicago to St. Paul via Eau Claire.

“Being included in the nationwide vision is further validation that we have the potential ridership here to justify adding passenger rail service to our region,” said Rogers, also vice president of governmental affairs for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have some of the fastest-growing counties and cities in the state. Adding passenger rail will help enhance the attractiveness of our communities and help that growth continue.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari called the document an “aspirational” map.

“It’s a vision. It’s what we think at the minimum should occur,” Magliari said. “We believe there are large parts of states, even that we serve today, that could benefit from improved mobility. For Eau Claire, that means not only service to the Twin Cities, but to the rest of Wisconsin.”

Amtrak indicated the expanded U.S. rail system could be built with funding from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, specifically the $80 billion Biden proposes to allocate to rail. The plan would “create jobs, improve the quality of life, reduce carbon emissions and generate economic growth,” Amtrak said in a statement.

Citing increasing traffic congestion on Interstate 94, Magliari said, “There has to be a better way to get from here to there and from there to there, and this is a way to do it.”

Efforts to bring passenger rail to Eau Claire are following two parallel tracks.

In addition to the Amtrak proposal, the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition has been focusing on reintroducing passenger rail service through a public-private partnership that would contract with a non-Amtrak private carrier to operate the service. The initial goal is to offer four trains a day between Eau Claire and St. Paul, with stops in Hudson, Baldwin and Menomonie along the way, said Rogers, who characterized the initiative as complementary to the Amtrak proposal.

The service, which Rogers suggested could be launched in three to five years, would aim to be at least as fast as driving but offer passengers the opportunity to work or relax en route without concerns about traffic and weather, he said.

The commission has been working with local units of government to form the Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission to represent the public interest in coordinating efforts to implement the proposed service, undertake local planning and pursue the long-term vision that includes service to Milwaukee and Chicago.

The commission held its first meeting Monday. Participants in the panel include Eau Claire, Dunn and St. Croix counties as well as the cities of Eau Claire, Altoona, Menomonie, Baldwin, New Richmond and Hudson.

Eau Claire County Supervisor Jim Dunning, who was elected interim chairman of the new commission, said the participation of so many counties and communities along the proposed route is a sign of their strong support for bringing passenger rail to the region.

Dunning said he expects the panel to ensure local governments follow through on projects such as building depots and establishing shuttle services to support the service.

Amtrak’s envisioned rail network would build new or improved rail corridors in 25 states, connecting up to 160 more communities and serving 20 million more passengers, the company said.

“With this federal investment, Amtrak will create jobs and improve equity across cities, regions, and the entire country — and we are ready to deliver,” Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said in a statement. “America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service. Now is our time, let’s make rail the solution.”

Rogers noted that Amtrak’s proposed additional routes are the same as those envisioned in Wisconsin’s latest State Rail Plan, adopted in 2014.

Amtrak and the Wisconsin and Minnesota transportation departments are working to extend one of the Chicago-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” trains across the state to Tomah, La Crosse, Winona, Red Wing and St. Paul — stations already served by the long-distance “Empire Builder.” That plan would include dedicated shuttle connections to serve Eau Claire, Madison and Rochester, Minnesota.

Shuttles have been extremely successful in generating more train ridership in some parts of the country, Magliari said.

“The general idea,” Rogers said, “is that you’d basically be able to buy a train ticket that would start in Eau Claire and you’d take a shuttle to Tomah and then get on a train from there to wherever you want to go.”

Rogers expressed confidence that bringing passenger rail back to west-central Wisconsin is viable.

“Where service has been reliable and competitive, people use it,” he said. “That has been true all over the country.”

Police chief: Kneeling on Floyd's neck violated policy

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minneapolis police chief testified Monday that now-fired Officer Derek Chauvin violated departmental policy in pinning his knee on George Floyd’s neck and keeping him down after Floyd had stopped resisting and was in distress.

Continuing to kneel on Floyd’s neck once he was handcuffed behind his back and lying on his stomach was “in no way, shape or form” part of department policy or training, “and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values,” Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said.

Arradondo, the city’s first Black chief, fired Chauvin and three other officers the day after Floyd’s death last May, and in June called it “murder.”

His testimony came after the emergency room doctor who pronounced Floyd dead testified that he theorized at the time that Floyd’s heart most likely stopped because of a lack of oxygen.

Dr. Bradford Langenfeld, who was a senior resident on duty that night at Hennepin County Medical Center and tried to resuscitate Floyd, took the stand at the beginning of Week Two at Chauvin’s murder trial, as prosecutors sought to establish that it was Chauvin’s knee on the Black man’s neck that killed him.

Langenfeld said Floyd’s heart had stopped by the time he arrived at the hospital. The doctor said that he was not told of any efforts at the scene by bystanders or police to resuscitate Floyd but that paramedics told him they had tried for about 30 minutes.

Under questioning by prosecutor Jerry Blackwell, Langenfeld said that based on the information he had, it was “more likely than the other possibilities” that Floyd’s cardiac arrest — the stopping of his heart — was caused by asphyxia, or insufficient oxygen.

Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death May 25. The white officer is accused of digging his knee into the 46-year-old man’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, outside a corner market, where Floyd had been accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes.

The defense argues that Chauvin did what he was trained to do and that Floyd’s use of illegal drugs and his underlying health conditions caused his death.

Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson questioned Langenfeld about whether some drugs can cause hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen. The doctor acknowledged that fentanyl and methamphetamine, both of which were found in Floyd’s body, can do so.

The county medical examiner’s office ultimately classified Floyd’s death a homicide — that is, a death at the hands of someone else.

The full report said Floyd died of “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” A summary report listed fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use under “other significant conditions” but not under “cause of death.”

Under cross-examination from Nelson, Langenfeld said Floyd’s carbon dioxide levels were more than twice as high as levels in a healthy person, and he agreed that that could be attributed to a respiratory problem. But on questioning from the prosecutor, the doctor said the high levels were also consistent with cardiac arrest.

Langenfeld also testified that neither he nor paramedics administered a drug that would reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The doctor said giving Narcan once a patient is in cardiac arrest would provide no benefit.

Floyd’s treatment by police was captured on widely seen bystander video that sparked protests that rocked Minneapolis and quickly spread to other U.S. cities and beyond and descended into violence in some cases.

Langenfeld said that “any amount of time” a patient spends in cardiac arrest without immediate CPR decreases the chance of a good outcome. He said there is an approximately 10% to 15% decrease in survival for every minute that CPR is not administered.

Prosecutors in the second week of the trial are also expected to zero in on Chauvin’s training in the use of force.

Arradondo also testified about police policy that dictates that whenever it is reasonable to do so, officers must use tactics to deescalate a situation so as to avoid or minimize the use of force.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher noted that while some people may become more dangerous under the influence of drugs or alcohol, some may actually be “more vulnerable.” Arradondo agreed and acknowledged that this must also be taken into consideration when officers decide to use force.

“It’s recognizing that when we get the call from our communities, it may not often be their best day, and they may be experiencing something that’s very traumatic,” the chief said.

Before he was pinned to the ground, a handcuffed and frantic Floyd struggled with police who were trying to put him in a squad car, saying he was claustrophobic.

Arradondo said officers are trained in basic first aid, including chest compressions, and department policy requires them to request medical assistance and provide necessary aid as soon as possible before paramedics arrive.

Officers’ first aid training is “very vital because those seconds are vital,” Arradondo said, adding: “And so we absolutely have a duty to render that.”

Officers kept restraining Floyd — with Chauvin kneeling on his neck, another kneeling on Floyd’s back and a third holding his feet — until the ambulance arrived, even after he became unresponsive, according to testimony and video footage.

One officer asked twice if they should roll Floyd on his side to aid his breathing, and later said calmly that he thought Floyd was passing out. Another checked Floyd’s wrist for a pulse and said he couldn’t find one.

The officers also rebuffed offers of help from an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter who wanted to administer aid or tell officers how to do it.

The city moved soon after Floyd’s death to ban police chokeholds and neck restraints. Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey also made several policy changes, including expanding requirements for reporting use-of-force incidents and documenting attempts to de-escalate situations.

Prosecutors have already called supervisory officers to build the case that Chauvin improperly restrained Floyd. A duty sergeant and a lieutenant who leads the homicide division both questioned Chauvin’s actions in pinning Floyd to the ground.

“Totally unnecessary,” Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the longest-tenured officer on the force, testified Friday.

Local elections are today

EAU CLAIRE — Nearly 40% of Eau Claire voters who were mailed absentee ballots for today’s election had not returned them by Monday morning, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

If they hadn’t mailed them already, those voters either needed to get them into the city’s ballot drop boxes by 7 a.m. this morning or bring them to the polls today.

“They need to be in our hands at the close of polls on Election Day,” Eau Claire City Clerk Carrie Riepl said.

All 20 of Eau Claire’s polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, using public health precautions that have been in place since the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring.

“We are following all the same procedures we implemented in 2020,” Riepl said.

Those include poll workers wearing face masks, voters encouraged to do the same, supplies sterilized between uses and allowing voters to request a ballot be brought to their vehicle parked outside the polling place by calling a phone number posted at its entrance.

As it has been since the pandemic began, absentee and early voting was popular for this election.

The 4,779 absentee ballots sought by Eau Claire voters is about double what the city sees before similar April elections when there are state and local races, but not a presidential primary, Riepl said.

Of this election’s total amount of Eau Claire absentee ballots, 1,244 of them were cast by people using the drive-thru voting site that operated during the past two weeks behind City Hall.

The other 3,535 absentee ballots were mailed out to Eau Claire voters, but a significant amount had not been received by Monday morning by local elections officials.

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 2,099 of those had been received by 7 a.m. Monday, and Riepl said another 50 came in the mail that morning.

That still left nearly 1,400 absentee ballots that were not returned by Monday morning.

For voters who held onto their absentee ballots, they can still bring theirs to polling places today to count in the election. However, those ballots must be completed, sealed in the envelope that came with them and the outside of that needs to be signed by the voter and a witness before taking it into the polling place.

Voters who have a blank absentee ballot can come to the polls today and vote, but must destroy the ballot they already received before getting a new one from poll workers to cast in the election.

Riepl is expecting about 35% voter turnout in the city, which is typical for an April election that doesn’t fall on a presidential election year. The city does have enough ballots to accommodate up to 40% turnout, she said.

Today’s ballots include races for Eau Claire City Council, Eau Claire school board, an appeals court judge seat and the state superintendent of public instruction.

Elsewhere in the Chippewa Valley, voters in towns, villages, school districts and cities also have contests on their ballots.

There are competitive races for town board seats in Anson, Bridge Creek, Brunswick, Clear Creek, Cleveland, Colfax, Edson, Goetz, Howard, Lafayette, Sampson, Seymour, Washington, Wheaton and Wilson.

Villages of Elmwood, Fairchild and Fall Creek have competition for some seats in their governments as well. Bloomer also has a contested City Council race.

School boards of Cadott, Chetek-Weyerhaeuser, Colfax, Durand-Arkansaw, Elk Mound, Elmwood, Fall Creek, Mondovi, New Auburn and Stanley-Boyd all have multiple candidates running.

And a referendum in Chippewa Falls is asking residents whether they would prefer the city to contract with a single garbage hauler, instead of the current system where residents hire their own service provider from the multiple companies serving the area.