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Lawmaker tries to slow high-speed rail (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

A state lawmaker wants Wisconsin to tap the brakes on high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison.

State Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon

State Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon

State Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, announced Tuesday he will introduce a bill that would prohibit the Wisconsin Department of Transportation from spending federal, state or local money on planning or building high-speed rail until the full Legislature approves the project.

“I want a full debate by the Legislature; not the Joint Committee on Finance rubber-stamping the project,” he said. “I hear from people directly about this that don’t know the details, and when they find out what the costs associated with this are, they get angry.”

The state has not yet determined the operating costs for the Milwaukee-to-Madison rail. Amtrak, which will manage the line, reported a preliminary estimate of $7.5 million annually. Amtrak also reported a one-way ticket on the line could cost up to $33.

“A round-trip ticket’s going to be about $60,” Davis said. “I don’t believe the ridership is going to be there.”

Joint Committee on Finance member state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said he is satisfied with the committee’s approval in February of the project.

“We accepted federal money from a previously approved grant,” he said. “It’s a fairly highly publicized project, but now it’s become a game of political football.

“It amazes me that a lawmaker would come out and say, ‘I don’t support infrastructure or the construction jobs associated with this.’”

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Davis said that’s not his intention. He said he understands the construction industry’s need for work, but the state could put people to work fixing deteriorating highways and roads.

Jobs are important, but the annual operating costs for the high-speed rail project deserve attention, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

“We’re not taking sides in the high-speed rail debate,” he said. “But there are funding issues and at some point, you’ve got to figure out how to pay for all this.

The $7.5 million a year is just another need on an ailing transportation fund.”

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the transportation budget carries a $30 million deficit.

But the $810 million in federal money for the high-speed rail project cannot help the transportation budget, said Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139. The money targets a particular type of project, and that project will put his workers in the field, he said.

VIEW THE DAILY REPORTER’S HIGH-SPEED RAIL PROJECT PROFILE PAGE

“I’ve never been a big advocate of rail,” McGowan said. “I’ve always been a highway man, but this is a big pool of money for rail. That’s it. So let’s build it.”

Right now, the money could help, Davis said, but he’s wary of the financial pain Wisconsin could feel after the project is built. He said the state needs to discuss refinancing the deficit-ridden transportation budget, and should not take on more expenses.

“Just because it’s federal stimulus money does not mean it’s free money,” he said. “That’s taxpayer money from people who are anxious to know if they’ll even have a job next week.”

Anxiety over jobs, McGowan said, is exactly his point.

“Once you get rail up and running,” he said, “then let’s have the discussion about finding another revenue source.”

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6 comments

  1. political grandstanding by scott walkers potential LT governor candidate, not realizing the economic development potential especially to the Madison region when the eventual Chicago to Mineapolis link is completed with stops in Madison and Milwaukee. Convergence of business opportunities not to be wasted by dim witted politicos trying to fire up the troops on a non-issue to get a name.

  2. As someone who frequently visits Chicago and Milwaukee using Amtrak, I would definitely use the service to Madison and spend money at the businesses there, and I know tens of thousands of other people like me would do the same thing on an annual basis. Add to the fact that college students like those at UW prefer public transportation to ineffecient and inconvenient car travel and this rail line sounds like a winner. Shame on Davis for not recognizing the needs of his constituents.

  3. Anxiety over jobs, McGowan said, is exactly his point.

    “Once you get rail up and running,” he said, “then let’s have the discussion about finding another revenue source.”

    nancy pelosi said the same thing about the healthcare bill. Pass it to find out what’s in it. This is typical of the tax and spend mentality. Try looking up the word “frugal.”

    I’m not against jobs, I’m against wasteful spending. Let’s talk NOW on revenue sources. We already subsidize Amtrack, should we add another line?

    American people love their personal freedom in an automobile. Besides it’s cheaper to drive from Milwaukee to Madison. If you take the train, you will need to rent a car, which will most likely have a “train tax” attached to that bill.

    Let’s think this out before we stick a shovel in the ground!

  4. Dan Johnson-Weinberger

    Connecting Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago is essential for the Midwestern region’s economic growth. Our problem is that it is just too much of a pain to get between Chicago and Madison — and it’s rather inconvenient to get between Madison and Milwaukee (not to mention all of the suburbs around each of those cities).

    That inconvenience retards our economic growth and efficiency.

    These are trips that are never taken, because it takes too long. And that means face-to-face meetings do not occur. Deals are not cut. Clients are not earned. Efficiencies are not forged. And jobs are not created.

    Connecting our region with fast, frequent, dependable train service is one of the absolute best economic investments we can make. Wisconsin’s economic future is tied to Chicago’s economic future and vice versa.

    Think of all the intellectual capital generated at UW-Madison every week! And then think of all the financial and business expertise in Chicago and Milwaukee. These three Midwestern assets must be linked together more closely than they are today (when we face a three hour drive between Madison and Chicago). Rail will do that.

    I hope leaders in Wisconsin that want to see economic growth embrace rail and the ongoing taxpayer investment in good rail service. The investment in rail pays off in a stronger regional economy with better job creation.

  5. If my employer reimburses me for the use of my personal vehicle to go from Madison to Milwaukee for business, the employer will pay me at least $75 based on the prevailing milage reimbursement of 50 cents per mile. Taking the train, Rep. Davis, would save money for my employer!

  6. ‘TS’ asks “We already subsidize Amtrack (sic), should we add another line?” — This is the Amtrak line. Nothing major will be added except a route into Madison, they are upgrading the first leg of the Milwaukee-Twin Cities line for improved safety and much higher speeds. That said, let me add that I’m amazed at the misinformation being spread about this done deal that will put thousands of marginally-employed skilled workers back to fulltime work. And let this Brett Davis’ phone ring with callers asking why he’s trying to stall this effort.

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