Transportation officials have confirmed that Wisconsin and federal administrators have signed a deal to commit the state to spending all $810 million of its federal stimulus cash on a proposed Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on its website Monday night the agreement was reached just days before today's election.
The deal is significant because it could make it harder for opponents to stop the controversial project, which officials originally hoped would one day connect the Midwest, from Chicago to Minneapolis.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the Republican nominee and gubernatorial frontrunner, has said repeatedly that he wanted to stop the rail project, even if it meant repaying hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal government. On Monday, he called the deal "raw political power at its worst."
But Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, said Gov. Jim Doyle's administration was only following its original plan for the project to create construction jobs as soon as possible.
"Essentially what this means is that we've satisfied the federal government that we are ready to start the construction phase," Renlund, the No. 3 official at the state Department of Transportation, told the State Journal. "We can put people on the job and pay them."
Renlund said state and federal staffers worked out the deal over the weekend because they were busy with other duties and that was the only time they could meet. She said the agreement was not publicly announced because it had just been reached, but it could be announced later.
The state had previously signed two contracts for $52.2 million for preliminary design of the stations and rail corridor. Doyle had signed one of the federal contracts at a media event in Watertown with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, who said there was nothing that could stop the project from moving forward. The contracts signed over the weekend commit the rest of the $810 million for the construction phase of the project, Renlund said.
Under federal rules, shutting down the project would require the state to repay the federal government for money already spent on the project. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Doyle and Busalacchi say that money would go to other states' rail projects, not to Wisconsin roads.
The train project has been a hot-button issue for most of the election, with the Republican candidates calling the proposal a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money. Democrats, including Barrett, Walker's opponent in the general election, have continued to support rail as progress for the state.
Walker has said he would either "send the money back to Washington" or push Congress to let the state use the rail funds for other transportation projects. The federal government, however, has said the money can be spent only on rail projects.
If the state pulls out of the project, Wisconsin taxpayers could be on the hook for money already spent.
"You'd be laying off people who have jobs, you'd be ripping up tracks and throwing away millions of dollars of taxpayers' money that's been spent," Barrett said of the matter earlier this year.
Barrett campaign spokesman Phil Walzak said the Democratic candidate for governor first heard of the agreement when he got a call from the Journal Sentinel seeking his comments. He said added he doesn't know whether proper procedures were followed in the deal.
"Tom would always insist that in every deal the proper procedures and protocols be followed. Always," Walzak said.
State Journal reporters Mary Spicuzza, Clay Barbour and Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.