Elections loom large for high-speed rail project
High-speed rail advocates are racing the state’s gubernatorial election cycle to line up support for an expanded track network to Green Bay and Minneapolis.
“This is not a done deal,” said Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz at a rally Tuesday for high-speed rail expansion. “We don’t know what the next governor will do.”
Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott Walker and Mark Neumann said they oppose the expansion of high-speed rail in Wisconsin. Furthermore, they said they would order the state stop construction of the Milwaukee-to-Madison line approved this year.
“There is no model I’ve seen that shows this line could be paid off or that it would break even,” Neumann said of the Milwaukee-to-Madison project. “It’s not fair to have folks in Superior paying for a line that people in Madison and Milwaukee use.”
Walker said he would rather spend state and federal transportation money on roads and bridges. He said he believes Republican and Democratic lawmakers would support that opinion.
“The money will go toward roads and bridges in their districts,” he said, “rather than rail lines that have limited access in the state.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett was unavailable for comment. Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak said the Milwaukee mayor supports high-speed rail to Madison.
Walzak said Barrett would have to see cost estimates for lines to Green Bay and Minneapolis before developing an opinion.
“The funding,” Walzak said, “is going to be an important part of this.”
The Milwaukee-to-Madison line will receive $810 million of the $8 billion dedicated to high-speed rail projects in the federal stimulus package. On top of that, Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, has proposed the next federal transportation bill include $50 billion for high-speed rail development.
If that money becomes available, Wisconsin needs to be in a position to use it, said Sarah Seibold, student leader of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, a Madison-based advocacy organization that works on budget and policy issues. Tuesday’s rally at the state Capitol was the third of seven stops WISPIRG student members will make this week. Each stop is designed to promote high-speed rail in a Wisconsin city that could be along the expanded network.
“We can provide more options for the public,” Seibold said, “and not just build more highways that are costly and sometimes unnecessary.”
Those who complain about the estimated $7.5 million annual cost of operating high-speed trains between Milwaukee and Madison, Seibold said, are not paying attention to the realities of transportation construction.
“We subsidize highways and streets too,” she said. “It’s just wrong to think that any major transportation project can stand on its own two legs.”
Cieslewicz said he believes Barrett can beat the GOP candidates in November and help extend rail lines north and into Minnesota.
“We just see ourselves as the first phase,” Cieslewicz said of the Milwaukee-to-Madison line. “We want to be connected to other major cities, and it’s important that politicians understand now that it’s good for the economy.”