Wisconsin will accept $810 million in federal stimulus money to build high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison despite the annual drain on a crippled transportation budget.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance on Tuesday voted 12-4 along party lines to accept the money. The committee unanimously accepted $12 million for track upgrades between Chicago and Milwaukee.
The operating and maintenance costs for rail would be covered by the state’s transportation budget, and the committee’s four Republican members argued Wisconsin is in no position to handle those expenses.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the transportation budget has a $30 million deficit. The state has not yet determined the Milwaukee-to-Madison operating costs, but Amtrak, which will manage the line, has offered a preliminary estimate of $7.5 million annually.
“If this is for economic development or to subsidize poor people that can’t afford cars, then take that money out of (the general budget),” said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine. “There’s not enough in the transportation fund to fix the roads we already have.”
It’s a fact that weighs heavily on road builders, said Mike LaLonde, president of Milwaukee-based LaLonde Contractors Inc.
“There’s going to be a time and place for rail, but it’s not now,” he said. “I don’t want to bash rail. I just rode it from Chicago to Milwaukee, and I loved it.
“But the budget is so stressed that we’re not going to be able to do anything right.”
Those concerns are legitimate, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, and they would exist even if the state chose not to build the rail line.
“Nothing’s changed yet as far as getting new revenue into the budget,” he said. “I think high-speed rail can be a tremendous boon to the state, but if we don’t figure out a way to get new revenue with or without the train, we’re still in trouble.
“Scrapping the train would not have solved the problem.”
The proposed line would run from downtown Milwaukee to Madison with stops in Brookfield, Watertown and Oconomowoc. Tickets for the trip, which is expected to take about 75 minutes, are estimated to cost as much as $33 one way. Amtrak estimated that more than 361,000 people will use the line in its first year.
Initially, the trains could go no faster than 79 miles per hour, which is the current limit for most Amtrak trains. Once safety upgrades are made along the lines and new locomotives are acquired in 2015, the trains could go as fast as 110 miles per hour.
Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger and Oconomowoc Mayor Maury Sullivan said residents in their cities overwhelmingly support the project and they expect businesses around the downtown train stations to benefit and expand.
“We are looking at this as a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Krueger said.
Gov. Jim Doyle has said building the new line could bring thousands of jobs to the state through 2015, but only 55 of them would be permanent.
About 80 additional jobs are expected to be created when Spanish train maker Patentes Talgo builds a new plant to construct two sets of 14-car passenger trains the state agreed to purchase. Those trains will be used to replace aging cars on the existing Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago.
The deal gives the state the option to purchase two more trains, which could be paid for with $48 million in stimulus money.
Right now, Wisconsin primarily relies on the gas tax and vehicle registration fees to generate transportation money. The Legislature in 2005 repealed gas-tax indexing, an annual gas tax adjustment that keeps pace with inflation and fuel consumption. Since then, state transportation revenue has decreased.
Finance committee member state Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee, said he wants the rail money to prompt legislative debate about making the transportation budget solvent.
“And if we didn’t accept the money,” he said, “there are other states out there that would have gladly taken it.”
Colon blasted GOP committee members for introducing amendments that would have prevented the state from using the transportation budget to cover rail operating costs and would have required an independent cost-benefit analysis of the project.
But the numbers are important, LaLonde said, particularly when rail operating costs are preliminary and roadwork is in peril. As much as 70 percent of LaLonde’s work is state let, he said, and if he loses that, he either has to make up the difference in municipal jobs or cut his work force.
“I understand it’s hard to have $800 million in front of you and say, ‘No,’” he said. “But that’s where discipline comes in. You spend more on rail, and what does that mean for roads?
“It gets to be like asking a mother what child she loves more.”
The Associated Press’ Scott Bauer also contributed to this report.