Republicans Fight Wisconsin High-Speed Rail

Only Wisconsin got all t he rail stimulus money it asked for -- more than $810 million to start sending trains between Milwaukee and Madison. But now, political opposition is mounting.

by / September 14, 2010
Wisconsin High Speed Rail

A state office building near the Wisconsin State Capitol is one of the proposed stops for high-speed rail. Reprinted by permission of Photo courtesy of Wisconsin High-Speed Rail.

A brick-and-glass state office building on the banks of Lake Monona, just a few blocks from the Wisconsin Capitol and the rest of downtown Madison, shows no outward sign that it has become the focal point of one of the most heated -- and unexpected -- debates to divide this state’s Democrats and Republicans in a crucial election year.

The controversy is over what the building could become: one of the first new station stops on a high-speed rail network paid for primarily with federal dollars. Wisconsin won big in a national competition to get the high-speed rail stimulus money, and the issue historically has attracted bipartisan support here. Proponents say the new rail service will spur development and link Midwestern cities more tightly together.

But many Wisconsin Republicans this year are denouncing the new trains, using the project as a symbol to show how Democratic leaders in both state and federal government are spending money that neither can afford. “More than anything,” says Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, “it symbolizes what people think of here when they think of runaway government spending.”

Both Walker and Mark Neumann, a former congressman who faces Walker in today’s Republican primary, want the state to stop work on the project. Walker launched his own website called, calling for using the money to fill other transportation needs. Neumann doesn’t want it used for transportation at all; he wants the money for tax breaks, although it’s not clear how viable either option is.

Rail proponents are not backing down. Last week, President Obama visited Milwaukee to preview his plans to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure, specifically mentioning high-speed rail. His transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a recent visit that “nobody can stop this train.” And Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is running to keep the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands, is firmly behind extending high-speed rail to Madison.

A Big Winner

Wisconsin won big in the sweepstakes to secure money for high-speed rail. Although 40 states applied for stimulus funds for faster trains, only Wisconsin got everything it asked for: more than $810 million to start sending trains between Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two biggest cities.

Some state-owned stretches of the route currently have a single track that is so old that freight trains can travel only up to 10 mph on it. The infusion of federal cash would upgrade the route from Milwaukee to Madison so the whole distance would have at least two sets of tracks, and trains could travel up to 79 mph initially and, by 2016, 110 mph. It’s a far cry from the speeds envisioned for trains in California and Florida, which would top 220 mph and 150 mph, respectively. But the benefit of the Midwestern approach is that the trains would come online quickly; planners say the first ones would arrive in Madison in the spring of 2013.

If and when passengers start using it, the Madison site would look quite different than it does today. A single track now winds, largely hidden from view, near a lakeside thoroughfare past the state office building. But planners envision a double track that would accommodate both freight and passenger rail. On the lakeside wall of the administrative building, the new platform would be topped with a four-story curved roof to complement the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed conference center next door. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wants to go a step further. Where a run-down parking garage now stands across the street, the mayor wants an underground garage covered with a city-owned market.

The station would eventually be just one stop in a much larger Midwestern network. Right from the start, Madison passengers would be able to take the train through Milwaukee to Chicago. Eventually, the route would be extended to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Passengers could catch trains in Chicago to stops stretching from Kansas City to Cleveland.

Wisconsin has long pushed for the regional network. Democrats defending the project today unfailingly mention that it was Tommy Thompson, a four-term Republican governor, who first promoted the idea here. The incumbent governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, put a spotlight on the issue during his two terms, traveling to Spain to ride on the country’s recently built bullet trains and convincing a Spanish train manufacturer to build an assembly plant in Wisconsin.

Boondoggle or Boon to Business?

The Doyle administration is moving full speed ahead to complete the route, even as Republican critics call for work to halt. State officials say they plan to have roughly $300 million of the $810 million project under contract by January, when the next governor will take over. Those contracts include design work, construction of bridges and the purchase of construction materials such as steel and railroad ties.

Walker, the Milwaukee County executive, says the state can still pull the plug on the project in January. He wants to cancel contracts before money has been spent on them. Many of the firms that would help build the rail line already do business with the state on highway and road projects, so they’d have plenty of reasons to cooperate with the state, he says.

Walker argues that the state is overestimating the number of people who will take the train, which would leave state taxpayers on the hook for more than the $6 million to $7 million the state says will be required annually for ongoing maintenance and support. Residents of the Milwaukee area can get to Madison cheaper and faster by taking a car than by riding the train, the candidate argues.

That’s the key difference, Walker says, between the Milwaukee-to-Madison route and the popular Hiawatha line that runs from Milwaukee to Chicago already. People are willing to take the Hiawatha because it can save them time in traffic or money for parking. More than 740,000 riders took it in 2009, a 50-percent increase from seven years earlier. Walker supports state subsidies for the existing route, but not for its extension to Madison. He points out that an Amtrak train already runs from Chicago to the Twin Cities, even though it bypasses Madison.

Cari Anne Renlund, of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, says Walker is missing the point. “This is not commuter rail; this is intercity rail,” she says. “This is to connect the folks in Madison with people in St. Louis.” Because it is an intercity system, Renlund says it’s more appropriate to compare train ridership numbers with that of airports. She says when the Madison train comes online in 2013, more people will use it in a year than will use the Madison and Green Bay airports combined.

Both Republican candidates for governor object to the ongoing subsidies the state would have to pay to keep the new trains running. But Redlund says the state’s current subsidy for rail is minuscule compared to roads. Right now, she says, the state pays $1.38 per Wisconsin resident on rail, compared to $360 per person on bridges, highways and roads.

More importantly, Renlund argues, “This is a jobs initiative. We are going to have thousands of people working on this. Efforts to kill the project are, in effect, efforts to kill those jobs.” The state estimates that extending the route to Madison will create 5,500 jobs at the peak of construction in 2012. Walker, though, dismisses those estimates and claims that only 55 full-time permanent railroad jobs are expected to be created by the expansion.

One of the stickiest issues, though, is what would happen to the federal money Wisconsin already has spent on high-speed rail if the next governor cancels the project. Walker says he would like for the state to be able to use the money for other transportation projects, even if that requires a change of law by Congress. He says Wisconsin previously has spent money originally designated for rail in order to improve highways.

But the state’s agreement with the federal government on the current stimulus program specifies that Wisconsin would have to pay back the money it receives if the state stops high-speed rail service in the next 20 years. A spokesman for Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor and presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, says Wisconsin would end up wasting millions of dollars to cancel the contracts without receiving any of the benefits.

If Wisconsin’s money did return to the federal government, other states would want it. This fall, 25 of them applied to the federal government for help with 77 different projects. The requests totaled more than $8.5 billion, but this year, the federal government only has $2.3 billion available.