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Rail costs are hard to pin down

By Sean Ryan

State legislators want hard figures on the annual cost of running a Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail line before approving construction.

That is unlikely to happen.

People around the country are asking the same question about operating costs for rail lines, said Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission. There really isn’t an answer, she said, because the federal government did not start investing large amounts of money into high-speed rail until 2009.

“Before that,” Kliewer said, “there was only a small, small amount of money for, say, improving signaling.”

Gov. Jim Doyle this week asked the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to approve the state’s acceptance of $810 million to build a Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail line. The cost of operating the trains would come from the state transportation budget, said Chris Klein, executive assistant to Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi.


The state came up with a rough estimate of operating costs when it applied for the money, but the actual cost is unknown, Klein said. The estimate — $8.2 million annually in 2013 dollars — is preliminary and based on the cost of running Amtrak trains from Milwaukee to Chicago.

But finance committee member Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said she will not support accepting the money until she gets firm numbers.

“I want a definite, credible evaluation of our obligation — the pluses and the minuses, the ridership, and the costs and how all of this works — on a spreadsheet,” she said.

Wisconsin has until Sept. 30, 2010, to accept the money before the grant offer expires. But the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 22 until after the Jan. 3, 2011, inauguration. So barring a special session or an extension of the federal deadline, lawmakers have 10 weeks to accept the money.

The $8.2 million annual estimate is good enough for Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

“I’m opposed to anything coming out of the transportation fund other than for the purpose of road building, but I do see this as a great project to put our people to work,” he said. “And I don’t worry about the maintenance and operating costs any more than I would the maintenance or operating costs of highway.”

The state cannot give a solid number for operating costs because there are too many unknown factors, Klein said. There are different costs depending on which locomotives the state buys, he said, and on how much the state will pay Amtrak to operate the trains.

Amtrak will be the go-to company to operate the trains in every state, Kliewer said, and it’s a nationwide question of how the company will determine its price.

She said states will meet with Amtrak to negotiate a way for the company to set standard charging methods.

That will take a long time, Kliewer said, and, until then, the calculations such as those WisDOT used are the best option.

Those numbers are not good enough to justify a long-term drain on state transportation money, Darling said.

“I can’t believe we are even having this discussion,” she said, “without even knowing what we are talking about.”

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  1. The bottom line here is that “Wisconsin has until Sept. 30, 2010, to accept the money before the grant offer expires …… lawmakers have 10 weeks to accept the money.” Enough with the endless debates. If we keep stepping on our shoelaces again here as we so often do in Wisconsin, this grant will go elsewhere with all its related jobs and so will the trains we’ve been promised for decades.

  2. I hope this grant offer does expire and the train does go elsewhere. Federal money is not free money. It is still my money, and this train is a waste of my money. Please, give me one example of someone that is going to use this train. I give the lawmakers credit for wanting reliable estimates of what this train is going to cost the state to run. This state is all ready in debt and doesn’t have enough money in it’s transportation fund to fix our failing highways let alone add the additional expense of a train. Would you make a big purchase with your personal finances when you are all ready in dept without researching what your long term costs are going to be? An example would be buying a house you can’t afford without even looking into how much your future utility bills and property taxes are going to be.

  3. Let’s get this condensed.

    $8.2 Million dollars for 4,050 statewide jobs that will only last 1-2 years per area.
    We also do not have accurate operating cost figures to estimate ticket prices.
    Let’s do somew quick PRELIMNARY estimates

    Initial cost $8,100,000
    10 year payback amortization = $810,000
    Yearly Operating Expense = $8,500,000
    Yearly Expense to Recover = $8,310,000
    Yearly Operating Days = 365
    Daily Operating Costs = $22,767.00

    Riders per day @ 100 = $227.67 ticket costs just to cover preliminary operating expenses WITHOUT ANY PROFIT.
    Also the increase of costs like Insurance or fuel are not even factored in

  4. 1. “high speed” trains will not go full speed all the way between Madison and Milwaukee. A number of cities along the way want it to stop. You will lose time there because it takes time to get up to speed and slow down and finally stop to unload and load passengers.
    2. New rail will have to be laid just for these trains. Freight trains need not apply. Land will have to acquired. Think of the problems power companies have with gaining access for new transmission lines, how much worse is this going to be?
    3. factor in the cost once you arrive for the cab ride.
    4. How long are you going to be there and when does the train leave to go back?
    5. Cost and ridership are very speculative. If speed is the attraction, and it won’t really get you there any quicker, why bother with the train.
    6. Ask yourself, do you think the train is something the state budget can afford?

    My proposal is for the state and federal govt to assist the freight railroads to increase track capacity so that more goods can be moved by railroad and less be trucks. This would give cars more room on the highway and the roads would last longer because fewer trucks.

  5. Jenny wrote: “It is still my money, and this train is a waste of my money.” ….. That is a fallacious argument because it is not only your money and mine, Jenny, but it is also the money of the rest of the nation to which we have been giving our Wisconsin money for their trains for decades, and it will finally be their money coming here. …. “Please, give me one example of someone that is going to use this train.” …. That specious “argument” went out with the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford’s first car. The Legislature is scheduled to vote this Tuesday.

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