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Train info session
About 650 people attended an information session Tuesday night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Madison on high speed rail between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The session was sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.

A boisterous crowd of more than 650 couldn't get all the answers it wanted Tuesday night about the impending collision between boosters of a Milwaukee-to-Madison rail line and an incoming governor who plans to stop it.

But that didn't keep people from peppering planners of a Milwaukee-to-Minneapolis passenger rail service with questions for about 90 minutes during a Wisconsin Department of Transportation information meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on East Washington Avenue in Madison.

Many of the queries were loaded, lobbed by critics of Gov.-elect Scott Walker's vow to block a passenger train line through the capital.

"I cannot speak for the governor-elect," Wisconsin passenger rail planning manager Donna Brown replied at one point. "If we have to put (plans) on the shelf, that's something we can do, but then the plan is there if it's needed later."

A Madison route is one of 25 being evaluated based on cost, ridership and dozens of other factors. A Federal Railroad Administration time line calls for narrowing the options to a single proposal sometime in 2012, said Charlie Quandel, a consultant hired by the Minnesota transportation department.

Some routes would take the high-speed line along the existing Amtrak route north of Madison, or along the state's east side, or through Iowa, Quandel said.

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Planning is part of a nine-state initiative that started in the mid-1990s and that involves routes across the Midwest.

Applause, cheering and handmade signs indicated that most of the audience came out to fight for a Madison link, but several opponents spoke up as well, sometimes sparking angry exchanges.

Madison tea party activist Kirsten Lombard asked who would pay for passenger trains service and whether the cost would be added to the bill for road construction and repair. When Brown said train planning money didn't come from highway funds, Lombard shot back that it all comes from taxpayers. As she strode from the microphone back to her seat, someone in the audience yelled "I'd rather pay for the train than the road!"

Meredith Oehlkers of Monona, who said she regularly visits family and friends in the Twin Cities and Chicago, drew laughter and applause when she raised the issue of highway safety as the population grows older: "My question to this audience is: I'm 72 years old — how much longer do you want me on the road?"

Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie said in an e-mail response to questions from the State Journal on Tuesday that Walker would be open to spending the $810 million allocated for the Milwaukee-to-Madison route to upgrade current passenger routes that bypass the capital, but that would require federal approval. Werwie declined to elaborate.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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