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State must put up its own money for federal rail grants

By Sean Ryan

Unlike the first high-speed rail grants Wisconsin received, future federal payouts will require the state put up its own money.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announces Tuesday March 2, 2010, that Talgo, a Spanish train company, will open an assembly plant in Milwaukee this fall, bringing about 125 jobs to the city. Doyle was joined at a news conference by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, center, and Talgo chief executive Antonio Perez. (AP Photo/Dinesh Ramde)

Wis. Gov. Jim Doyle announces March 2 that Talgo, a Spanish train company, will open an assembly plant in Milwaukee to build high-speed rail train sets. Doyle was joined at a news conference by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (center) and Talgo CEO Antonio Perez. (AP Photo/Dinesh Ramde)

But the state already has problems maintaining its roads and should not shell out money from the transportation budget to get federal rail grants, said Rep. Mark Gottlieb, R-Port Washington, the Wisconsin Assembly’s appointee to the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

“Irrespective of the amount of federal money that is on the table right now,” Gottlieb said, “moving forward even faster with intercity rail is something I just don’t think we can afford right now.”

The $822 million Wisconsin received for high-speed rail in January came from the federal stimulus package. That money will pay for service between Madison and Milwaukee and some work on the Milwaukee-to-Chicago line. The grants do not require the state spend its own money on construction, but Wisconsin must pay operating costs.


And the state still needs money to plan for and build track and stations for high-speed rail service from Madison to Minneapolis, and from Milwaukee to Chicago. The U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday made a second call for rail project applications for such projects, but these grants require applicants get some skin in the game.

State officials plan to apply for more federal high-speed rail grants, said Karl Ostby, whom Gov. Jim Doyle appointed as a Wisconsin representative on the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission. But Ostby said he does not know if there are plans to apply for grants this year.

“The next critical piece — and there was some money in the last round for preliminary work — is the connection from Madison to the Twin Cities,” Ostby said.

The U.S. DOT on Thursday sought applications for $50 million in grants for planning and engineering and $65 million in rail construction money that wasn’t awarded in 2009. Applications are due May 19. The department also will request applications for the $2.3 billion in rail construction grant money approved in the 2010 federal budget.

But for every $10 states receive from the 2010 federal construction grants, the states must spend $2 of their own money. For the leftover $65 million from the 2009 budget, states must provide a 50 percent match to the federal grants.

State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, opposes state transportation spending on rail money. He said the state should instead seek federal highway money, which also requires a local match.

“I certainly don’t think we should take anything out of the transportation fund to pay for high-speed trains,” he said.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said the need for states to spend their money should not hinder rail projects. He said increased rail service can ease budgets for road construction by taking drivers off the roads. Fewer drivers should result in less needed maintenance, he said.

“Wisconsin finally has the opportunity to link the capital of your state to Milwaukee and to Chicago, and that I think is a pretty exciting opportunity,” Harnish said. “And for a few shekels that it’s going to cost the state government to run those trains, people should be thrilled about it.”

Gottlieb said the state simply cannot afford the rail grants.

“Every time you have the possibility to get additional federal money, you have to look at the strings attached and the commitments you have to make,” he said, “and decide if it’s in your best interests.”

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One comment

  1. Mark Gottlieb in effect is saying we should turn down almost a trillion dollars worth of skilled jobs. Would Mark Gottlieb turn down a free Lamborghini because he’s have to put gas in it? And what’s pro-road/anti-rail Mark Gottlieb doing on the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission anyways? That’s like PETA and the SPCA appointing Michael Vick to their boards of directors.

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