By Justin Kern
Special to The Daily Reporter
A second federal payout toward the $817.6 million high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison is accelerating debate among the state’s gubernatorial candidates.
Wisconsin officials joined U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Watertown Thursday to announce the state received $46.5 million from the overall $810 in federal stimulus money largely paying for the project.
Gov. Jim Doyle said 5,500 state jobs would be connected to developing and installing the rail line.
In separate press statements Thursday, Republican gubernatorial candidates Mark Neumann and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker slammed spending on the line as wasteful and vowed to fight its completion if elected.
Walker committed to stopping action on the passenger rail line and instead advocate the stimulus money go toward roads and bridges, according to the statement from Walker’s campaign.
Neumann wants to put the brakes on the line’s development and worries about debt and operating costs if the rail line is built, according to the statement from his campaign.
Representatives for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, running for governor as a Democrat, touted the federal money as an economic link to neighboring states. They said a rail stop such as that proposed for Watertown is an opportunity for development.
“We know that rail has worked,” said Paul Walzak, communication director for Barrett. “Only in an election year would (high-speed) rail be turned into demagoguery.”
Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger, a Republican, speaking in a phone interview after the announcement, said candidates should “take a step back” and look at the overall economic effect of the rail line.
The newly announced money will go toward final design work and preliminary engineering work by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The money also will pay for the completion of environmental management plans for the entire corridor, including work on the Watertown and Madison stations, according to Doyle’s office.
Krueger said the Watertown stop will be near existing rail lines on Highway 26 at the site of a former Pick ‘N Save.
Construction of the rail line connecting Milwaukee and Madison is slated to start sometime this year, with an estimated finish in 2013. Lines would connect with an existing route to Chicago and a to-be-determined line westward to Minneapolis.
Earlier this year, the state received $5.7 million for environmental assessments of planned new stations between Milwaukee and Madison.
Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said his group held a gathering last week of about 50 people interested in promoting the Milwaukee-to-Madison line. The announcement Thursday was a step toward more jobs and transportation diversity, Harnish said.
“It seems to me to be pretty short-sighted for a hopeful leader of a state to suggest continuing to force everyone to drive,” Harnish said.
Craig Thompson from the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin said his group is not “philosophically opposed” to a rail line, but that payment for the Wisconsin rail segment should be part of the public discussion.
“We do want to see where the operating costs are coming from,” he said.