Train boosters in Wisconsin aren’t the only ones frustrated with Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s promise to kill the proposed rail link between Madison and Milwaukee: so are our neighbors to the west.
“Obviously, if we don’t have a willing partner, it makes it more difficult to move forward,” says Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s passenger rail office. “We all have our state politics to deal with, and the fact Wisconsin is in the middle (between Minnesota and Illinois) is a problem.”
If Wisconsin refuses to get on board and Walker turns away $810 million in federal stimulus money to pay for rail service between Milwaukee and Madison, it is unlikely Minnesota would see its largest metropolitan area connected to the proposed nine-state Midwest rail line anytime soon.
So despite Walker’s pledge, Minnesota is moving forward with a series of meetings in Minnesota and four in Wisconsin, including a Dec. 7 forum in Madison, to obtain information for an environmental impact study on roughly a dozen proposed rail routes between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Milwaukee. The meetings are part of a $1.2 million joint planning effort by the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments, the Midwest Rail Initiative and the Federal Railroad Administration. The federal government contributed $600,000 to the study’s cost, with Minnesota and Wisconsin each pitching in $300,000.
The Madison meeting will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. at the state DOT southwest regional office, 2101 Wright St. While Minnesota’s transportation department is the lead agency, state DOT staff will be present at the Wisconsin meetings. Based on feedback from the forums, the route options for Minnesota will eventually be narrowed down to one.
“Minnesota and Illinois both see the tremendous advantages of linking Chicago and the Twin Cities,” says Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based advocacy group that supports clean energy, sustainable business practices and mass transit. “Unfortunately, the geography dictates that can’t happen without Wisconsin’s cooperation. To get by rail from Chicago via Iowa to the Twin Cities is a longer, more expensive alternative. That makes it far less desirable.”
Efforts to connect the Twin Cities to other large metropolitan areas are part of the Midwest Rail Initiative. In the works for more than a decade, the plan calls for utilizing 3,000 miles of existing rail lines to connect nine Midwest states and link such cities as Omaha, Cleveland, St. Louis and Minneapolis with Chicago as the center hub.
Since defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a train advocate, in the governor’s race, Walker has asked the federal government to redirect the $810 million stimulus grant intended for the Madison-Milwaukee rail line to build and maintain state roads and bridges. Federal officials, in turn, have said if Wisconsin turns down the money it will be given to another state. Despite numerous pro-train rallies being held across the state, Walker hasn’t budged.
“The Madison-Milwaukee train line is dead,” says John Hiller, Walker’s transition team director, in a prepared statement. “Wisconsin taxpayers will not be on the hook for multimillion-dollar ongoing operating subsidies because of Governor-elect Walker’s efforts to stop this boondoggle.”
Minnesota’s Krom says he is mindful of the controversy surrounding the efforts to extend rail service to Madison, but is staying the course. “It is important for a rail line to serve Madison, but we will work with what we have,” he says. “Obviously, excluding Madison would impact ridership numbers.”
Walker has repeatedly stated that the annual operating costs for a Milwaukee-to-Madison line are too pricey given the state’s projected budget deficit of several billion dollars.
In an interview with The Capital Times prior to the November election, Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, estimated it would cost $7.5 million annually to operate the Madison-to-Milwaukee line; the state expects the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the cost, leaving Wisconsin to pay $750,000.
This year, the cost to operate the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago is $5.5 million. The federal government is paying all but $520,000, or 10 percent, of that amount.
Walker also argues that rail service has minimal support outside of Milwaukee and Madison.
A survey of 615 Wisconsin residents conducted Nov. 15-17 by UW-Madison professor Ken Goldstein showed 52 percent of residents opposed the state moving forward with rail service between Milwaukee and Madison, while 36 percent supported the move. The survey, released Monday, was sponsored by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a Hartland-based conservative think tank.
“People in the city of Milwaukee and the Madison media market were much more supportive of building the train line than those in the rest of the state,” says Goldstein in a statement.
But James Hill, the coordinator of the Empire Builder High Speed Rail Coalition and executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corp., says there is enthusiastic support for the train in western Wisconsin.
“We’ve been very visible in our efforts to expand and obtain train service,” says Hill. “There is interest up here.”
Hill says the Empire Builder High Speed Rail Coalition recently sent Walker a letter asking him to “hit the pause button” on his campaign pledge to stop the train. Hill says it is time to take a “real look” at the economic aspect of rail service.
Hill says he has yet to hear from Walker or any member of his transition team. In the meantime, he is planning to attend the joint agency meeting in La Crosse.
“It’s a shifting political landscape, but you deal with whoever the set of characters are at any given time,” Hill says. “We’re not being Pollyannaish about this. We know moving the project forward is a tall order.”
Renlund says Wisconsin transportation officials are not going to stand in Minnesota’s way as the state moves forward.
“Minnesota is the lead agency (on the environmental impact study), and we are participating on the work they want to do,” Renlund says. “Minnesota still wants to move forward. We are not going to stop them in getting this work done.”