High-speed rail is alive in Minnesota and Illinois despite Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s promise to pluck the heart out of a regional network connecting the states.
“We have no indication we’re not moving forward,” said Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s high-speed rail office.
But a Tuesday letter attributed to Walker confirmed his intent to stop the project. The letter, sent to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, outlined Walker’s request that the $810 million set aside for the Milwaukee-to-Madison line should be diverted to highway construction.
According to a Monday letter attributed to LaHood, the money will be directed to other states before it is shifted to road projects.
Until told otherwise, Krom said his team will continue planning train service from the Twin Cities through Wisconsin. He said Wisconsin contributed $300,000 to MnDOT’s $1.2 million rail planning, which will identify the best route from Minneapolis to Milwaukee.
If Wisconsin backs out, Minnesota should seek an alternative route to Chicago, said Zach Schwartz, transportation manager for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Either way,” he said, “high-speed rail doesn’t get taken off the agenda completely, regardless what happens in Wisconsin.”
Iowa shouldn’t be a part of any alternative route discussions, said Dena Gray-Fisher, Iowa Department of Transportation spokeswoman. She said high-speed rail would require construction of new tracks, an impractical and expensive undertaking.
“Iowa just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support that,” Gray-Fisher said.
The Illinois Department of Transportation also is continuing high-speed rail planning. The state has $1.2 billion in high-speed rail money from the federal government.
Josh Kaufman, IDOT spokesman, said the project predates outgoing Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.
“Since (former Gov. Tommy) Thompson’s administration, we’ve recognized the importance of connecting Chicago to Madison, and we look forward to making this vision reality,” Kaufman said. “Any other decisions made would depend on what neighboring states decide.”
Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission, said the state has worked with Wisconsin too long to sever ties now. He said he sent a letter to Walker and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on Tuesday reaffirming his commission’s support for high-speed rail. But, Miller said, there are possibilities for a compromise.
Miller is mayor of Winona, Minn., which is on the Wisconsin border. The city has an Amtrak station. If high-speed rail cannot happen, Miller said, his rail commission at least wants another passenger train from Minnesota to Chicago.
“I tend to be a realist, so I can understand where Governor-elect Walker is coming from,” Miller said. “I think he’s looking at things in a logical way, so maybe there’s a way to get through this where we walk before we run.”
Minnesota, Krom said, still is running with the high-speed rail idea, though he said that planning eventually could stall at the border.
“There are a lot of factors at play,” Krom said, “but a strong partner to the east is important for us to move forward.”