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Home / Government / It’s official: High-speed rail is dead in Wis. (UPDATE)

It’s official: High-speed rail is dead in Wis. (UPDATE)

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (left) addresses the media with District 7 Alderman Willie C. Wade at his side Thursday at City Hall. Barrett and Wade discussed how the federal money slated for Wisconsin’s high-speed rail work is being redirected to other states. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (left) addresses the media with District 7 Alderman Willie C. Wade at his side Thursday at City Hall. Barrett and Wade discussed how the federal money slated for Wisconsin’s high-speed rail work is being redirected to other states. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By James Briggs

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.

(Map courtesy of WisDOT)

(Map courtesy of WisDOT)

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.”


  1. Morons.

  2. Is high-speed rail and having jobs too European for these tea tards?


  3. Thank you Scott Walker. Why would I want to travel from Madison to Milwaukee in anything other than a car anyways? That just seems way too convenient and environmentally responsible.

  4. I think all so-called “red states” should be starved of federal funds, or at least not given even a dime more than they pay into the system. The irony of the situation is that the red states are almost all net tax recipients, meaning they receive far more in federal spending money than they pay in federal taxes, and the blue states are almost all receiving less in federal spending than they pay in taxes. If they want small government, I say we give it to them and literally starve them into extinction.

  5. Cars, baby! Or buses. Does any company manufacture those here anymore, or are they all made overseas? Or planes.

    But then again, maybe the Congressional Democrats will surprise us, allow all the Bush-GOP tax cut gimmicry to expire, we’ll get $4 trillion pouring into the Treasury over the next 10 years, and there’ll be money for supertrains from Bangor, Maine to San Diego, California. Wisconsin might even vote for people who support infrastructure spending and modernization during that period, and you’ll be part of the mix once again along with rest of the blue states!

  6. Notice the three states awarded the funds are the three biggest in debt , all three close to bankruptcy. Go Figure.

    Everyone screamed he cant stop the train, Ray LaHood said he cant stop the train, now Walker stopped the train and everyone screams he stopped the train.

    Mark my words its all political fodder, no states will get any of this train money , it will all be held back and distributed in other federal programs, rail is dead nation wide.

  7. Perhaps the money will go somewhere a train might actually make sense.

    Good for Scott Walker.

    Someone has to refuse spending like a drunken sailor. (no offense intended to drunken sailors)

  8. “Mark my words its all political fodder, no states will get any of this train money , it will all be held back and distributed in other federal programs, rail is dead nation wide.”

    Your words have been marked… I look forward to revisiting this with you in the near future.

  9. Hey Jones, careful with your “Tea tards” comment. Hardly the politically correct tone that the left holds high.

    Being “Euro” is so cool. It will not be long till our red states like California and Illinois will be looking for bailouts like Greece and Ireland.

  10. When unsure of how to stand on an issue look toward Gwen Moore. If you take the opposite position from her you will most assuredly be correct.

  11. The US DOT announced that it will redirect high-speed rail funds from WIsconsin and Ohio to California, Florida and elsewhere. So Scott Walker got it his way. Will this short change the entire state by taking away decades of economic growth that may have developed along the rail line? Only time will tell.

    As for subsidies, almost every single rail line in the world including the most successful ones require government subsidies to function. There is only one line in the world that is self-sufficient. It’s a high-speed rail line in Japan. That doesn’t mean that high-speed rail isn’t worth the investment. Quite the opposite. History shows that wherever an investment has been made in passenger rail, economic growth is seen ten to twenty years down the line and beyond.

    Scott Walker says the demand isn’t there for the link between Madison and Milwaukee; that the line wouldn’t have enough benefits to attract people to the train away from their cars. He says the density just isn’t there in Wisconsin. He may be right. But that’s an extremely narrow view of this project that will not happen now. It was part of an eventual link between The Twin Cities and Chicago. Having all of those people pass through the Wisconsin would have produced a monetary benefit to the state. There would have been increased tourism in Madison and Milwaukee. There would have been an increase in business investment between the cities where stops were proposed. Its an undeniable effect of infrastructure development. I would borrow a line from Field of Dreams. “Build it and they will come.” History shows this to be the case anywhere else passenger rail lines have gone in. It also is proven through the investment in our interstate highway system. Yet, it cost many more dollars per passenger mile to maintain the highways in Wisconsin than it would have cost to maintain the rail link between Madison and Milwaukee. Regardless of who paid for the operating costs, economists, both Republican and Democrat, say you get much more bang for your buck percentage wise with rail investments.

    Scott Walker is not wrong in saying that money is needed for onther infrastructure projects in Wisconsin. But his decision to kill the high-speed rail link dooms the state to relative economic stagnation. If you like the status-quo, then I guess that’s fine.

  12. For one of Walker’s final acts as Milwaukee County Executive I understand he’s also killing the train at the Milwaukee County Zoo. They had it right when they introduced the rubber tired tram and the train is just another example of government waste.

  13. It’s not government waste. If you use Scott Walker’s logic, the interestate highways in Wisconsin would have never been built because there wasn’t enough of a demand for them at the time. Wisconsin grew in the 20th century partly because the interstate highway system enabled that growth to take place thanks to government foresight.

    You don’t wait for the demand to reach a critical point before you build large-scale infrastructure projects. You invest in the future by building them ahead of time. It spurs ecnomic development, grows communities and encourages investment in the area.

  14. My deepest sympathies for the death of high speed rail, rational analysis, numerous jobs, tourism, environmental protection and $810 million in federal funding. Who turns down $810 million in federal funding that would improve and increase transportation in our state and then say he wants to make Wisconsin open for business? Such a tragic loss for all of us.

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