Wisconsin Rail Fight Heats Up

Wisconsin Rail Fight Heats Up

Wisconsin’s Republican governor-elect, Scott Walker, campaigned and won on a pledge to kill a planned Madison-Milwaukee passenger rail line that drew a large federal grant. Now, departing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle warns it is “pure fiction” that Walker would be able to redirect that money into repairing the state’s roads and bridges.

The Wisconsin rail fight has become a flash point in a broader political battle across the country over what one side sees as a sensible way to begin connecting cities in the future and the other sees as a big-government waste of funds.

Wisconsin won $823 million in federal funds for the Madison-Milwaukee project and other passenger rail work, along what would eventually be a corridor linking Chicago and Minneapolis. It would upgrade freight tracks of Canadian Pacific Railway and Wisconsin Southern Railroad to allow passenger service as well as freight, part of a broader Chicago Hub Network of Amtrak operations across the region.

By The Numbers: U.S. Rail Cargo.

But like many other corridor projects, it was slow to gear up amid protracted negotiations between states, railroads and federal authorities. Doyle finally signed an implementing accord just before the election with the U.S. Department of Transportation to try to get this project going, and commit his state to supporting it.

Last week, state officials told contractors to suspend their work in the face of the election results and Walker’s stated plans to redirect the federal grant to road repairs. “We have gotten this project to the point where construction work is ready to begin immediately,” Doyle said Nov. 8. “Right now, people could be at work constructing land bridges and more.”

He said “I have put the project on pause” to let Walker and federal officials confer about what to do next. But Doyle said the idea that the state can use the money in other ways “is pure fiction. There are already states lined up with rail projects waiting for us to turn back this money,” and if Walker decides Wisconsin should not build the project, “the U.S. DOT has made it very clear this money will go to another state” for its rail service.

In that event, Doyle said Wisconsin would also have to cover over $14 million in expenses already incurred for the project, plus $82 million in required upgrades to existing facilities.

A similar fight could soon play out in Ohio, where Republican John Kasich won the governorship Nov. 2 over incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland, and vowed to kill a planned Amtrak route linking Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

And in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans take control with a strong majority come January, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., is poised to head the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He likes high-speed rail in some cases but says many slow-speed versions may not be worth it. He plans to review grants already awarded.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.