High-speed rail in Wisconsin off track?When a piece of federal stimulus dollars was appropriated for a study of potential routes for high-speed rail service from Chicago to the Twin Cities, proponents of the idea thought greater access to public transportation across Wisconsin was just around the corner.
By: By Jeff Holmquist, New Richmond News
When a piece of federal stimulus dollars was appropriated for a study of potential routes for high-speed rail service from Chicago to the Twin Cities, proponents of the idea thought greater access to public transportation across Wisconsin was just around the corner.
A number of potential routes were touted as having the best potential for financial success. Two routes being looked at run through St. Croix County — one through Hammond, Roberts and Hudson; and another through New Richmond and Somerset.
For some commuters with jobs in the Twin Cities, the new rail access idea sounded like a good way to save time and money.
As the research into the high-speed rail option continues, however, it’s unclear what the future holds.
Among Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s first official communications after being elected in November was a request that the state stop all work on a high-speed rail upgrade from Milwaukee to Madison.
Walker said the $810 million in federal money should instead be spent on other transportation priorities, and not on expanded rail service. Walker’s Press Secretary Cullen Werwie said there is already rail service from Chicago to Minneapolis via Amtrack, so high-speed rail shouldn’t be pursued right now.
“Since learning about the state’s agreement with the federal government, we have been exploring all legal options to stop the train from moving forward,” Walker said. “We are continuing to work with members of Congress on redirecting this money to fixing our crumbling roads and bridges.”
Current Gov. Jim Doyle responded by putting the brakes on the work being done in the southern part of the state.
On Thursday, Governor Jim Doyle reported that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood advised him that the $810 million awarded to Wisconsin will now be allocated to other states.
“This is a tragic moment for the State of Wisconsin," he said. "Our team worked hard to win a national competition to make us a leader in high speed passenger rail. We were positioned to be not only a center of the line, but to be a manufacturing center as well. Now we are moving from being the leader, to the back of the line.
“Eight hundred and ten million dollars that would have gone to create thousands of jobs in Wisconsin will now create jobs in other states. Bogus arguments that this money can be used for roads have been proven false. As Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota continue to work on the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, the connection of Chicago to Minneapolis will avoid Wisconsin. Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire and other Wisconsin communities will lose the benefit of those connections. Together with many others I have worked hard to move Wisconsin into the future. I obviously am deeply saddened to see us take a major step backward.”
U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl also voiced his displeasure over the situation.
“I'm disappointed to see this project leave Wisconsin," he said. "High-speed rail held a lot of promise to create thousands of jobs and spur economic growth."
In response to Doyle's and Kohl's statements, Walker said Wisconsin voters spoke in November when they elected him.
"Wisconsin taxpayers were victorious today in defeating this project," he said. "The last election showed that Wisconsinites oppose runaway government spending."
Had the Milwaukee to Madison line gone through, Walker said, taxpayers would have been "on the hook" for as much as $7.5 million in annual operating subsidies to keep the line operational.
Walker’s opposition to the high-speed rail plan hasn't completely stoppred the preliminary planning for the establishment of a preferred route from Milwaukee to Madison to the Twin Cities.
In fact, the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of transportation held an informational meeting Dec. 1 in Eau Claire to gather input from area residents and local leaders on the topic of high-speed rail in the region.
About 180 people attended, according to Praveena Pidaparthi, planning director with the Passenger Rail Office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Many voiced their support for rail service through western Wisconsin, suggesting that those deciding upon an eventual preferred route should select this region for the new service rather than a possible line from Madison to LaCrosse to the Twin Cities (the route Amtrack’s Empire Builder currently follows). Officials in the Rochester, Minn. area are also lobbying for the eventual high-speed line to come through their community.
“Overall, there was support for the Twin Cities to Milwaukee High-Speed Rail Corridor Program Study, especially for the route through Eau Claire,” Pidaparthi said.
According to earlier studies, officials hope a future rail line through this region would help cut down on traffic congestion along the Interstate 94 corridor.
The level of enthusiasm shown at the recent Eau Claire gathering has carried over to other meetings held to discuss high-speed rail in recent months, she added. About 200 people attended a similar meeting in LaCrosse earlier in the week.
“We have seen enormous support from people at the open house meetings for the high-speed rail alternative from both Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Pidaparthi said.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is now taking the lead in the corridor study and officials there remain optimistic that train service will eventually be established. That’s why the preliminary work continues.
“The study ... is focusing on identifying a locally preferred route for this corridor and getting environmental clearance so that when future federal funding becomes available, the study is eligible,” Pidaparthi said.
Pidaparthi said a draft report could be ready in January, if all goes well.
Once that’s done, discussion will begin on who might operate the high-speed line, if it ever becomes a reality.
“We are trying to have some options for the leaders in Minnesota to consider well before we begin construction on rail lines,” she said.
According to early high-speed rail plans, the line from Chicago to the Twin Cities would likely carry passengers at 79 mph. Eventually, when all of the track and signal upgrades are completed, officials would expect speeds to top 110 mph along the line.
Early plans called for the Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail section to be up and running by 2013, with six round trips daily. The service to the Twin Cities was to follow after that.
There is no word on adjusted timelines as a result of Walker’s opposition to the high-speed rail idea.