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.”