Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker is accusing Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Democratic opponent Tom Barrett of advancing high-speed rail construction work without letting the public weigh in on the project‘s environmental consequences.
Walker, Milwaukee County executive, said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has not held a meeting on the project’s ecological effects since 2001. At the time, an estimated 13.5 acres of state wetlands would be jeopardized by the project, but WisDOT reports now estimate 23.85 acres would be destroyed.
The increase is cause for concern, Walker said. He sent a letter Wednesday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting public input on the environmental cost of the proposed Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail line.
“For political purposes, they’re trying to push this through, and that’s consistently been acknowledged — even among DOT staff,” Walker said. “We’re just saying we need to slow the train down.”
WisDOT officials did not immediately return calls for comment.
Walker accused Barrett and Doyle of pushing ahead with high-speed rail construction projects before the Nov. 2 election without taking necessary steps. But Phil Walzak, Barrett campaign spokesman, said the Milwaukee mayor is adamant high-speed rail construction efforts follow all necessary legal procedures.
Walzak said Walker misled Wisconsin voters by distorting environmental issues to support his campaign against high-speed rail.
“This project, like any other infrastructure project, can be done by striking a balance with environmental concerns,” Walzak said. “These projects are too often tainted in black and white absolutes without seeking any compromise or reasonable middle ground.”
Erin O’ Brien, policy director for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, said she is pleased whenever a politician stresses the need for environmental protection, not just with high-speed rail but all state infrastructure projects. Too often, she said, Wisconsin laws do not prevent irrevocable damage to wetlands.
“Sometimes these projects take on a life of their own, and you can’t stop them,” O’Brien said. “But, regardless, this kind of infrastructure needs to be done sensitively.”
Public hearings are generally hosted for more controversial projects, O’Brien said, and their effectiveness varies. But Walker said there is majority support for more public meetings in order to answer environmental — and financial — questions about construction of the high-speed rail line.
“We’re not advocating a position or alternative to the plans,” he said. “It’s just a major project that affects this part of the state of Wisconsin, so it’s legitimate to ask the legal process be followed.”