Lawmaker tries to slow high-speed rail (UPDATE)
A state lawmaker wants Wisconsin to tap the brakes on high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison.
State Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, announced Tuesday he will introduce a bill that would prohibit the Wisconsin Department of Transportation from spending federal, state or local money on planning or building high-speed rail until the full Legislature approves the project.
“I want a full debate by the Legislature; not the Joint Committee on Finance rubber-stamping the project,” he said. “I hear from people directly about this that don’t know the details, and when they find out what the costs associated with this are, they get angry.”
The state has not yet determined the operating costs for the Milwaukee-to-Madison rail. Amtrak, which will manage the line, reported a preliminary estimate of $7.5 million annually. Amtrak also reported a one-way ticket on the line could cost up to $33.
“A round-trip ticket’s going to be about $60,” Davis said. “I don’t believe the ridership is going to be there.”
Joint Committee on Finance member state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said he is satisfied with the committee’s approval in February of the project.
“We accepted federal money from a previously approved grant,” he said. “It’s a fairly highly publicized project, but now it’s become a game of political football.
“It amazes me that a lawmaker would come out and say, ‘I don’t support infrastructure or the construction jobs associated with this.’”
Davis said that’s not his intention. He said he understands the construction industry’s need for work, but the state could put people to work fixing deteriorating highways and roads.
Jobs are important, but the annual operating costs for the high-speed rail project deserve attention, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.
“We’re not taking sides in the high-speed rail debate,” he said. “But there are funding issues and at some point, you’ve got to figure out how to pay for all this.
The $7.5 million a year is just another need on an ailing transportation fund.”
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the transportation budget carries a $30 million deficit.
But the $810 million in federal money for the high-speed rail project cannot help the transportation budget, said Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139. The money targets a particular type of project, and that project will put his workers in the field, he said.
“I’ve never been a big advocate of rail,” McGowan said. “I’ve always been a highway man, but this is a big pool of money for rail. That’s it. So let’s build it.”
Right now, the money could help, Davis said, but he’s wary of the financial pain Wisconsin could feel after the project is built. He said the state needs to discuss refinancing the deficit-ridden transportation budget, and should not take on more expenses.
“Just because it’s federal stimulus money does not mean it’s free money,” he said. “That’s taxpayer money from people who are anxious to know if they’ll even have a job next week.”
Anxiety over jobs, McGowan said, is exactly his point.
“Once you get rail up and running,” he said, “then let’s have the discussion about finding another revenue source.”