A request to shift federal high-speed rail money to repair the Hoan Bridge is reigniting the road vs. rail debate, despite the inquiring lawmakers’ insistence it’s not an either/or matter.
“To me it’s just about priorities,” said state Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee. “If you’ve got a hard asset that’s falling apart, you fix it.”
Plale and state Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, on Wednesday asked members from Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to shift $250 million from the $810 million in federal stimulus money awarded to Wisconsin for a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison to repair the crumbling bridge in Milwaukee.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation last month requested bids for netting under the 33-year-old bridge after discovering concrete pieces that fell off the structure.
Plale said he knows asking federal lawmakers to redirect money earmarked for high-speed rail is a tall order, but fixing the bridge is more crucial.
“A train would be nice, and maybe someday it will be possible,” he said. “But in the real world you have to look at what’s the priority and that’s this bridge in desperate need of repair. I would hope that lawmakers still have some common sense and can decide what is the highest and best use of stimulus money.”
David Frey, spokesman for Congresswoman Gwen Moore, D-Wis., said the high-speed rail money cannot be shifted.
“If the funding isn’t used as applied for, it won’t be used in Wisconsin,” he said. “It will go to another state for use there.”
Frey cited California, New York and Florida as examples of other states that could use Wisconsin’s share of stimulus money for high-speed rail projects of their own.
Frey said Moore supports using federal highway financing programs to repair the bridge, and that Wisconsin can use annual Federal Highway Administration dollars or the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program.
To state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, the Hoan Bridge problems highlight the need for lawmakers to find new revenue sources for transportation.
Wisconsin uses vehicle registration fees and gas taxes to finance transportation projects, but that money has been short in recent years. In addition to shifting transportation money in many state budgets to nontransportation programs, state lawmakers in 2006 repealed gas-tax indexing, an annual gas tax adjustment that keeps pace with inflation and fuel consumption.
Roys, who was not a lawmaker in 2006, called that a “fiscally dumb move,” and said the state needs to come up with new ideas to finance road, bridge and rail projects.
The transportation budget faces an estimated $30 million deficit.
Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said he supports more money for highway work, but does not oppose the high-speed rail line.
“I’ve got a lot of bridge builders out of work,” he said. “I was happy to see the high-speed money come in, because there’s a long, 1.3-mile bridge proposed on that route, which would be great for us.”
Shifting rail money to repair the Hoan Bridge could just lead to future financing problems, McGowan said.
“It’s like the story of the little boy that used his finger to plug a leak in a dike,” he said. “You plug one hole and another one sprouts.”
ROBBING RAIL TO PAY HOAN IS A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE. READ THE BLOG
If the state cannot afford to finance high-speed rail for another few years because of a shift, Sinicki said Wisconsin can handle the wait.
“Chunks are coming off the bridge,” she said, “and people are worried.”
But if Wisconsin cannot use the high-speed rail project to fix the Hoan Bridge, Plale said state lawmakers need to come up with alternatives quickly.
“I don’t know the inner-workings of federal government, nor do I want to know,” he said. “I know there will be folks who will absolutely dig in their heels and who don’t want to put any money into roads, but we need to raise the discussion to the next level.
“There are pieces of concrete falling off the most noticeable bridge in the state’s largest city.”