Obama to foot
$519 million for
By Larry Sandler and Patrick Marley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 20, 2009 - State officials are seeking federal stimulus money to pay the full $519 million cost of a proposed 110-mph Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger train line, not just part of it, Gov. Jim Doyle says.
If the grant is approved, trains could be running as soon as late 2012 or early 2013, cutting the travel time between Wisconsin's two largest cities to 1 hour, 7 minutes, officials say. That's about 20 minutes faster than the same trip by automobile, depending on traffic.
Service would start with six daily round trips, connecting Milwaukee's downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station with a new station at Madison's Dane County Regional Airport, with additional stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown.
At the same time, service on Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line would increase from the current seven daily round trips to 10, with all of the Madison-to-Milwaukee trains continuing to Chicago. If Chicago wins its bid for the 2016 Olympics, the trains would provide a link between the main Olympic sites and the cycling venues in Madison.
But even without the Olympics, authorities expect the Milwaukee-to-Madison trains to carry 1.08 million riders a year within a couple years after service starts, said Randy Wade, the state's passenger rail chief. Hiawatha ridership jumped 24% last year, to 766,167.
Republicans have been critical of the possibility that the state would have to pick up part of the operating costs of the new train line, regardless of how much the federal government pays to establish the route. Early plans predicted fares would cover all operating costs within a few years after service started. But Wade backed away from that projection, saying only that operating costs remained under study.
The Milwaukee-to-Madison route is part of the Wisconsin-led Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a nine-state effort to connect cities throughout America's heartland with fast, frequent passenger trains. But the plans drawn up in the mid to late 1990s were moving slowly until the stimulus package appropriated $8 billion for high-speed rail nationwide.
Now Doyle and Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi are enthusiastic about the route's prospects.
Previously, the state had planned to apply for $137 million to upgrade tracks on just a portion of the route, from Milwaukee to Watertown, and to build a freight rail bypass to improve passenger service on the Hiawatha line.
But that was when state officials thought the stimulus bill would include a little more than $1 billion for high-speed rail. After they saw that figure had soared to $8 billion in the final deal, they set their sights higher.
With so much money available from the federal government, Doyle said, Wisconsin has a good chance of getting money to upgrade tracks all the way to Madison. Stimulus money also may be available for preliminary work on the next stage of the line, which would go to St. Paul.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself, because we're going to have to apply for this money, but Wisconsin is particularly well-situated," Doyle said. "We are one of the few states in the country - and I think we're talking about no more than two or three states - that actually have so-called shovel-ready projects ready to go, meaning design work is done, right-of-way is there and environmental permits have been met, have been issued."
Outside the Midwest, 10 other regions are competing for high-speed rail dollars. But Busalacchi said he expected the Milwaukee-to-Madison project to benefit from the backing of Democratic U.S. Reps. David Obey (D-Wausau) and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota. In the House, Obey is chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Oberstar is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Doyle, a major backer of President Barack Obama during the campaign, was among the governors who advised Obama on how to shape the stimulus. And Doyle has said he talked to Obey repeatedly, sometimes several times a day, while the legislation was being drafted.
Future plans call for high-speed rail on three other Wisconsin routes, including:
Madison to St. Paul: The Wisconsin portion of this segment would cost $456 million. Intermediate stops for the six daily round trips would include Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, La Crosse and the Minnesota cities of Winona and Red Wing.
Milwaukee to Green Bay: This route would cost $421 million. Trains would run seven daily round trips, with intermediate stops on Milwaukee's northwest side and in West Bend, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh and Neenah, in the Appleton area.
Milwaukee to Chicago: Upgrading the Wisconsin portion of the current Hiawatha route to 110-mph service would cost $419 million, serving the existing stations downtown, at Mitchell International Airport and in Sturtevant and Glenview, Ill. Once that's done, service would jump to 17 round trips daily, with seven trains continuing to Green Bay and 10 continuing to Madison, with six of the Madison-bound trains continuing to St. Paul.
Even before the full upgrade, the freight rail bypass would allow Milwaukee-to-Chicago service to increase to eight round trips daily. That part of the cost is included in the $519 million Madison-to-Milwaukee price tag. Also, the federal government and Canadian Pacific Railway are splitting the $10 million cost of track improvements this year on the Milwaukee-to-Chicago route.
For the long-term plan to work, neighboring states must compete successfully for their share of the federal rail money, Doyle said.
"I hope that you'll see a broader Midwest effort made here, because ultimately the vision is a Midwest rail linkage through Chicago by which you could go to St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland (and) Minneapolis through Milwaukee and Madison," Doyle said.
Technically, the Midwestern trains wouldn't meet the international standard for high-speed rail, which is closer to 220 mph, well above even the 150 mph top speed of America's fastest train, Amtrak's Acela line in the northeast, said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Leaders of the Midwestern effort have said 110 mph service would be more affordable than true high-speed rail.
Stimulus in state To read more of the Journal Sentinel's coverage of the federal stimulus package and how Wisconsin will spend its share, go to www.jsonline.com/stimulus.
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