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A project to establish high-speed passenger rail service between Madison and Milwaukee cleared its final obstacle Tuesday as the Legislature's budget committee signed off on the project, which could cost up to $810 million.

The 12-4 party-line vote means the state can use federal stimulus money to begin construction work by the end of this year and to start passenger service as early as 2013 -- the first such service in Madison in four decades.

Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee pointed to support from business groups who say the line will create thousands of construction jobs in the early years as well as increasing commerce and investment.

"It's going to be very positive for the region and for the entire economy," said committee chairman Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.

Republicans criticized the train between the state's two largest cities as, in the words of Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, a "train to nowhere" that will be a waste of federal money and will require ongoing state subsidies once it begins.

"Let's be realistic. We don't have $8 million a year to contribute to this," Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said of the future subsidies. "This is not a priority right now."

The construction work on existing freight lines could be finished as early as 2013, with passenger service starting then with a top speed at 79 miles per hour. Later improvements to the line and the purchase of new diesel locomotives could allow a top speed of up to 110 miles per hour by 2016.

The Madison-to-Milwaukee line would initially require an estimated state subsidy of $7.5 million in 2013 and have 361,400 passengers, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The state's existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line is receiving a state subsidy of $5.5 million this year.

Improvements to the existing Madison-to-Milwaukee freight line and other expenses are expected to cost $651.8 million, with the added federal money included to cover inflation and any unforeseen costs.

The money includes $47.6 million for a maintenance facility to be built in Dane County. It includes $9 million for the building of a single Madison station, but the Fiscal Bureau analysis said it was not clear if any savings from the project could be redirected to pay for a second Madison station, as some local leaders have advocated.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a candidate for governor in the GOP primary, said in a statement the state should reject the federal stimulus money for the rail line to avoid the state subsidy costs going forward. Walker spokeswoman Jill Bader had no immediate comment on whether Walker would halt the project if he were elected governor in November and took office in January 2011.

U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, Walker's GOP primary opponent, said he also opposed accepting the federal money and would consider ending the project if he were elected and it still required a state subsidy. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is running for governor as a Democrat, supports the project.

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