Departing rail money puts freight line in a pinch
Published: December 17, 2010
Tags: commissioner, Dane County, federal, finance, freight, high-speed rail, Madison, Rail, transit, U.S. Department of Transportation, Van Schwartz, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, WisDOT
By Joe Lanane
The state and some Wisconsin counties are stuck with the $35 million tab to upgrade a freight line between Madison and Watertown now that federal high-speed train money is gone.
“The state had been waiting nearly a decade for federal money to come to Wisconsin to upgrade this freight line,” said Ken Lucht, manager of community development for Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., the state-contracted operator of the 33-mile track. “But because it is being redirected to other parts of the country, it’s pretty clear now the state is going to have to rebuild it themselves.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation on Dec. 9 redirected nearly all of Wisconsin’s $810 million in high-speed rail money to 13 other states. That pushed any potential rail upgrades back at least five years, Lucht said, and requires his company apply for a grant from the state’s rail preservation program.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation grant would cover 80 percent of the upgrade price, while the remaining costs for such projects typically would be divided between Wisconsin & Southern and the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission.
The commission represents eight southern Wisconsin counties that pool money to pay for local rail projects. Each county chips in $27,100 for a total of $216,800 per year — far less than the anticipated $3.5 million needed to cover the commission’s required 10 percent for the freight line.
The commission spends all of the money each year.
Van Schwartz, Dane County transit rail commissioner and finance committee chairman, said the commission recently has been unable to match its 10 percent local contribution, forcing Wisconsin & Southern to make up the shortfall for other projects.
“There’s no question work on this rail line needs to be done,” he said. “It’s valuable and will lead to additional jobs and traffic. But the economic reality is that counties don’t have the money to fund schools or roads, let alone any other activities.”
That 10 percent has been more of a goal than a requirement, said Frank Huntington, supervisor of WisDOT’s rail project and property management unit. A commission’s failure to pay that portion does not necessarily rule out a project from receiving state grant money, but other factors may.
“Although this line definitely needs repairs and will probably be a candidate in the next few years, it does not have the same traffic as other freight lines,” Huntington said. “I suspect (Wisconsin & Southern) has other higher-priority projects.”
Lucht said his company has not decided what projects will take priority leading up to the Feb. 1, 2011, state application deadline, but the Madison-to-Watertown line will be near the top of the list.
“If a seasoned biker were to go on the trail next to this rail corridor, they would be able to go faster than our trains go,” he said. “That’s the problem we’re facing out there.”
Until track upgrades are made, freight trains cannot travel faster than 10 mph, said Ron Adams, chief of the WisDOT railroads and harbors section. Trains not only have to go slower, he said, but they also have to carry about 12 tons less product than most freight railcars.
Even if the Madison-to-Watertown project gets WisDOT grant money, Adams said, work that expensive typically is broken down over years. The state released $30 million last budget cycle for rail upgrades and acquisitions, he said, but that number varies.
“We’ll have a budget request submitted to the Legislature,” Adams said,” but how much we can do depends on how much we get.”
Gov.-elect Scott Walker said previously he would use federal high-speed rail money to repair existing highways, bridges and freight rail lines. His office did not return calls seeking comment, but, according to an e-mail attributed to Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie, the governor’s transition team is working with the U.S. DOT to explore all possible federal financial options. But most likely, according to the e-mail, the money will be allocated within the state budget.
If the process so far is any indication, Schwartz said, he remains skeptical the project will receive money.
“Often politics and railroading,” he said, “just do not mix.”