A day after voters issued a scathing rebuke of his party, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle halted progress on the state's controversial $810 million passenger train — some of which had been authorized only hours before.
"At the governor's request, I have asked contractors and consultants working on the high speed rail project to temporarily interrupt their work for a few days," Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, said Thursday, a day after the companies were informed of the decision.
"In light of the election results, our agency will be taking a few days to assess the real world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped."
The move comes days after it was revealed that transportation officials signed a deal to commit the state to spending all of the $810 million in federal stimulus money it had received for the rail project. Many saw that deal as an effort by Doyle to tie the hands of his successor, Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker, and force him to complete the Madison-to-Milwaukee project.
Walker made stopping the project a key part of his campaign, saying the train — though federally funded — would end up costing state taxpayers millions of dollars a year to operate. He has often said he would rather use the money to fund other transportation projects, a move that would require congressional approval.
When told the news Thursday, Walker said he was glad to hear it.
"We have been pursuing legal options that would give us the right between now and Jan. 3 to try and slow down, if not stop the train," he said.
Nine companies affected
Officials with DOT said nine companies were affected by the stoppage, including Edward Kraemer & Sons, Kapur & Associates Consulting Engineers, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, Daar Engineering and Amtrak.
Neither DOT nor the Doyle administration would release details Thursday on the size of the contracts or the number of jobs affected, but the State Journal was able to confirm at least two contracts were worth more than $30 million combined.
Officials with Edward Kraemer & Sons, the contractor handling grading, excavation and bridge construction of a two-mile stretch in Jefferson County, received an e-mail Wednesday telling them to begin work on the $28.5 million project. Three hours later they received an e-mail rescinding the order.
No reason given
Kraemer Vice President Fred Lueck said Thursday that he had not been told why the state pulled back.
"Literally, we haven't heard anything, other than to stop," he said.
DAAR Engineering also confirmed Thursday that it had been told to stop its $2.8 million project.
Ramesh Kapur, of Kapur & Associates in Milwaukee, would not reveal the size of his firm's contract but said no employees are affected by the hold order, which he described as "not that unusual."
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"All they (the state) said was to put it on hold and we said ‘OK." It happens a lot with government contracts, many projects where they say stop for the time being until we work things out," he said.
Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the rail company "will certainly review the latest directive from the state and take appropriate action."
The extent of Amtrak's participation has been in planning expansion of the Hiawatha line and in assisting the state DOT with grant applications and the like, Magliari said. He said so far there have been "no hires" related to the project, but was not familiar with the size of any existing contract.
Mayors support move
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said Thursday he thought it was appropriate to "pause" the project, while a new administration prepares to take office.
"I think Gov. Doyle respects the process and understands that a new governor with a different point of view is taking over," he said.
Cieslewicz said he thought the train project would ultimately move forward.
"I hope so," he said. "I still believe we can, and should, do this."
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost the governor's race to Walker, said he agreed with Doyle's decision to temporarily stop the process.
If the project is killed, the money would likely go to another state or be used to pay down the federal deficit, he said.
"I am obviously in favor of the money going here," he said.
Thompson set precedent
Walker has said he wants to use the train money on roads and bridges. That would require approval by Congress, which now has a Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives and a strong Republican minority in the U.S. Senate.
He said a precedent for such a maneuver was set in 1998, when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson — with the help of Wisconsin's congressional delegation — used $241 million meant for light rail between Milwaukee and Waukesha County to fund the Marquette Interchange.
"We're going to reach out to members like Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan and Tom Petri to see if the same sort of thing could happen," he said.