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Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A Tweet announcing Onalaska High School senior Noah Skifton’s plan to attend college and play football at University of Minnesota-Duluth is shown on his smart phone.

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La Crosse lawmakers re-introduce rail safety bill

La Crosse area lawmakers are again introducing rail safety legislation that failed to pass in 2016 after a series of high-profile derailments.


Sen. Jennifer Shilling

Rep. Jill Billings and Sen. Jennifer Shilling, both Democrats, have authored companion versions of the Wisconsin Rail Safety Act, which would require railroads to provide more information to the state while also increasing funding for government inspectors and emergency responders.

“It was at the urging of people in our area,” Billings said of her decision to re-introduce the bill. “(Railroads) run through the heart of so many of our communities. People have concerns about rail safety.”

Modeled after Minnesota law, the bills would:

  • Fund state rail track inspectors.
  • Provide training for local emergency first responders along rail routes.
  • Require railroads to submit prevention and response plans.
  • Provide guidelines for coordination and response timelines and require incident reports to the Legislature.
  • Order a state report on emergency preparedness and public and private resources to handle a derailment or spill.

“Part of this bill is to make sure the Legislature is in touch with what’s happening,” Billings said. “The Legislature, as the eyes and ears of the public, should have that info.”

Billings and Shilling introduced similar legislation in November 2015 after a weekend in which two trains derailed about 200 miles apart in Wisconsin, spilling oil and chemicals and prompting temporary evacuations. The bill died when the Senate adjourned in 2016 without taking action on it.

It had support from environmental groups, municipal government and trade unions but was opposed by railroads, the petroleum industry and the state’s chamber of commerce.

According to publicly available data, the roughly 45 trains per week hauling volatile North Dakota crude oil through Wisconsin at the end of 2014 has dwindled to less than half a dozen.

Yet rail safety advocates remain concerned about ethanol, ammonia, benzene and other unknown hazardous materials that are transported by rail every day as well as older tank cars known as DOT-111s, which the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded are “inadequately designed to prevent punctures and breaches” in derailments.

Federal rules will prohibit the use of unmodified DOT-111s for crude oil starting in 2018. But those tank cars can legally be kept in service for ethanol and other flammable liquids for up to another 12 years.

“We recognize that the freight rail industry is an important part of Wisconsin’s economy,” Shilling said in a news release. “In La Crosse, rail infrastructure has been a part of the city’s history and identity since its earliest days. Yet, the recent interest in rail traffic has led to heightened safety concerns in our community and across the state. Wisconsin residents rightfully want to know what measures are being taken by state and federal regulators and industry stakeholders to ensure meaningful oversight and emergency response readiness.”

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

The city of La Crosse plans to build a third ball field just north of the existing Carroll Fields. The city property is used by Badger Corrugating and City Brewery to park trucks and trailers.

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Gundersen launches phone line to handle influenza influx; 42 people hospitalized so far in La Crosse County

Overwhelmed with flu patients, Gundersen Health System has launched an influenza information campaign.

Gundersen spokesman Chris Stauffer said the system’s nurse advisers are fielding about 300 phone calls per day instead of the usual 200.

As of Thursday, Gundersen had diagnosed 171 confirmed cases of influenza A and had started to see some of influenza B, said infection preventionist Megan Meller. At the same point last year, the number was fewer than 15.

“We see that in about a day lately,” Meller said.

Meller said there have been 39 patients admitted to the hospital with the flu.


An influenza information line (608-775-0364) and webpage ( provide recorded information about flu symptoms, vaccination and testing, as well as general advice on coping with the illness and is designed to free up providers to treat an influx of patients.

Callers to Gundersen’s flu line can press zero to be transferred to a nurse adviser, who can help determine whether they need to be seen by a provider.

A spokesman for Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse said providers there are seeing 10 to 12 flu cases a day, though they have not set up any special lines.

“For us it’s basically keep on calling your providers,” Rick Thiesse said.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 646 flu-associated hospitalizations in the week ending Jan. 20, when the federal Centers for Disease Control reported the proportion of people seeking treatment for influenza-like illness was 6.6 percent, which is about three times the normal rate and is the highest flu-like illness percentage recorded since the 2009 pandemic.

So far this season 42 La Crosse County residents have been hospitalized with the flu, said Christine Gillespie, the county’s public health nursing manager. That’s up from just 26 for the entire 2016-17 season.

Of those, more than 40 percent were over age 65 but nearly a quarter were between 18 and 49. About 44 percent had received a flu vaccine.

Gillespie advises basic measures such as covering coughs and washing hands to contain the spread of the virus.

“The biggest thing is people staying home when they’re sick,” Gillespie said. “To not only take care of themselves but not to spread it to their coworkers.”


Bill promises Wisconsin foster kids free college tuition

MADISON — A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators has proposed waiving tuition and fees for foster children attending University of Wisconsin schools and state technical colleges, saying the children lack a permanent family when they age out of the foster system and need help to succeed.

The measure would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition reimbursements and grants over the next two years and still result in the UW System losing tens of thousands of dollars annually, according to fiscal estimates. Still, more than a third of the Legislature's 132 members have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors.

The Assembly's universities committee is expected to approve the measure on Thursday, clearing the way for a full vote in that chamber.

"When (foster children) age out of the system, they sometimes have no support," the bill's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Todd Novak, said. "They end up either in the workforce or they end up in trouble. This is an incentive to get into school. It gives them something to strive for in high school."

Twenty-eight other states already offer some form of post-secondary tuition assistance for foster children, according to the Education Commission of the states. Eight states provide grants or scholarships to defray tuition costs; 20 states waive tuition at varying levels.

The bill calls for eliminating tuition and fees at UW schools and state technical colleges for state residents who resided in an out-of-home placement for at least a year after turning 13; was adopted or appointed a guardian after turning 13; or was in an out-of-home placement on his or her 18th birthday. People who fit those parameters would be eligible for free tuition and fees for 12 semesters or until he or she attains a degree or reaches age 25. The Higher Educational Aids Board would get $410,000 annually to reimburse UW and technical colleges for the lost revenue.

The bill also calls for the state Department of Children and Families to distribute $120,000 over each biennium to fund four grants of up to $30,000 each to develop programs to help former foster children at UW schools and technical colleges.

The UW System estimates as many as 4,613 people between the ages of 18 and 24 could be eligible for free tuition and fees. The system estimates 5.5 percent of those eligible will enroll in a UW school and about 12 percent will enroll in a technical college. That means UW schools would lose about $260,000 annually while collecting only about $130,000 in reimbursements, according to the system's fiscal estimate.

System officials warned in the estimate that may be underestimating the amount of lost tuition and fees. They also noted their figures don't account for scholarships and financial aid foster children might receive that would reduce the amount of tuition they would owe, in turning reducing the schools' lost revenue.

UW System President Ray Cross said in a statement Monday that the system fully supports the bill because it gives foster children easier access to higher education. Wisconsin Technical College System spokesman Conor Smyth said the system supports the bill as another way to help more people gain jobs skills and help employers fill vacancies.

Novak said the cost amounts to relatively tiny numbers in the grand scheme of state finances.

"And what's our payback going to be?" he said. "What's it cost to keep someone in jail or prison? If we can get them on the right track early and get them into school, it's going to make a big difference."

No groups have registered in opposition to the bill. Three groups have registered in support, including Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Wisconsin Association of Family and Children's Agencies, the Wisconsin Technical College District Boards Association. The Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has registered as neutral on the proposal.

The bill is one of 13 proposals from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' foster care task force, making it likely the proposal will clear that house before the legislative session ends this spring. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's spokesman, Dan Romportl, said Fitzgerald hasn't reviewed the bill yet.