Just three months after insisting there was no stopping a proposed high-speed rail line from being built between Madison and Milwaukee, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday issued the project’s death sentence.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle for years championed the project as one that would create thousands of jobs and spur economic growth, but Gov.-elect Scott Walker made it a top campaign promise to stop the rail line, which he repeatedly called a “boondoggle.”
LaHood relented and, according to a statement, said $810 million that had been awarded to Wisconsin as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would be redirected toward states with governors who wanted to move forward. The U.S. DOT also reallocated $385 million that had been awarded to Ohio.
A Walker spokesman did not respond to requests for comment, but instead issued a statement attributed to Walker, saying, “we didn’t need and couldn’t afford the Madison to Milwaukee rail line. … Wisconsin taxpayers were victorious in defeating this project.”
Doyle issued a statement calling Thursday a “tragic moment” for Wisconsin.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, expressed disappointment in the U.S. DOT’s decision, but not because the federal government wouldn’t pay for high-speed rail in Wisconsin. Grothman, like Walker, argued Wisconsin should be allowed to reallocate the money toward roadwork.
“I suppose we’ll have to see what our representatives in Congress can do,” Grothman said. “Obviously, it’d be nice to use it in some form of transportation people in Wisconsin would actually use.”
Studies, though, indicated hundreds of thousands of people per year would use the Madison-to-Milwaukee line, starting in 2013. Both cities were counting on the project for different reasons.
Milwaukee used the project to lure Spanish train maker Talgo Inc. into the city. Milwaukee invested $3 million into facility upgrades for Talgo, but company officials indicated they would consider leaving the state if the Madison-to-Milwaukee line is not built.
Now that the death of the line has become a reality, the Milwaukee city attorney’s office is examining the high-speed rail contracts between the state and federal governments to determine if the city could sue to recover its expenses, said Patrick Curley, chief of staff for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Madison counted on the project to spur development near what would have been the train station at the Department of Administration building.
“It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing,” said Alderwoman Marsha Rummel, whose district includes the proposed rail station site. “We had a great opportunity make sure Wisconsin is in the 21st century for transportation options. This is a backward step.”
Dane County Board Chairman Scott McDonell called the project’s collapse “a swift kick in the gut to Wisconsin,” and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz expressed anger, saying “the responsibility for keeping 5,000 people out of work rests squarely on the shoulders of Scott.”
Cieslewicz also blasted Walker for not communicating with Madison, despite what the mayor said were almost daily attempts to reach him.
“It seems to me that when the mayor of the second-largest city in the state wants to have a conversation … to not so much as respond to that, I think that’s a very telling indication about the character of the person,” Cieslewicz said.
The realization that high-speed rail would not come to Wisconsin in the near future also disappointed several activist groups that had set up grass-roots campaigns to try and change Walker’s mind. WISPIRG, a public advocacy group, organized rallies across the state even as the high-speed rail project seemed to be on life support.
“We never gave up hope because competing in a modern economy requires convenient, efficient transportation,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG’s director. “We all felt that incoming officials would reconsider because this type of project is too important to pass up.”
Cieslewicz said he spoke to LaHood and that the transportation secretary apologized and offered a glimmer of hope.
“He said if the political will in the state changes,” Cieslewicz said, “obviously the route between Chicago and Minneapolis should go through Madison.”