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Departing rail money puts freight line in a pinch

By Joe Lanane

The state and some Wisconsin counties are stuck with the $35 million tab to upgrade a freight line between Madison and Watertown now that federal high-speed train money is gone.

“The state had been waiting nearly a decade for federal money to come to Wisconsin to upgrade this freight line,” said Ken Lucht, manager of community development for Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., the state-contracted operator of the 33-mile track. “But because it is being redirected to other parts of the country, it’s pretty clear now the state is going to have to rebuild it themselves.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Dec. 9 redirected nearly all of Wisconsin’s $810 million in high-speed rail money to 13 other states. That pushed any potential rail upgrades back at least five years, Lucht said, and requires his company apply for a grant from the state’s rail preservation program.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation grant would cover 80 percent of the upgrade price, while the remaining costs for such projects typically would be divided between Wisconsin & Southern and the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission.

The commission represents eight southern Wisconsin counties that pool money to pay for local rail projects. Each county chips in $27,100 for a total of $216,800 per year — far less than the anticipated $3.5 million needed to cover the commission’s required 10 percent for the freight line.

The commission spends all of the money each year.

Van Schwartz, Dane County transit rail commissioner and finance committee chairman, said the commission recently has been unable to match its 10 percent local contribution, forcing Wisconsin & Southern to make up the shortfall for other projects.

“There’s no question work on this rail line needs to be done,” he said. “It’s valuable and will lead to additional jobs and traffic. But the economic reality is that counties don’t have the money to fund schools or roads, let alone any other activities.”

That 10 percent has been more of a goal than a requirement, said Frank Huntington, supervisor of WisDOT’s rail project and property management unit. A commission’s failure to pay that portion does not necessarily rule out a project from receiving state grant money, but other factors may.

“Although this line definitely needs repairs and will probably be a candidate in the next few years, it does not have the same traffic as other freight lines,” Huntington said. “I suspect (Wisconsin & Southern) has other higher-priority projects.”

Lucht said his company has not decided what projects will take priority leading up to the Feb. 1, 2011, state application deadline, but the Madison-to-Watertown line will be near the top of the list.

“If a seasoned biker were to go on the trail next to this rail corridor, they would be able to go faster than our trains go,” he said. “That’s the problem we’re facing out there.”

Until track upgrades are made, freight trains cannot travel faster than 10 mph, said Ron Adams, chief of the WisDOT railroads and harbors section. Trains not only have to go slower, he said, but they also have to carry about 12 tons less product than most freight railcars.

Even if the Madison-to-Watertown project gets WisDOT grant money, Adams said, work that expensive typically is broken down over years. The state released $30 million last budget cycle for rail upgrades and acquisitions, he said, but that number varies.

“We’ll have a budget request submitted to the Legislature,” Adams said,” but how much we can do depends on how much we get.”

Gov.-elect Scott Walker said previously he would use federal high-speed rail money to repair existing highways, bridges and freight rail lines. His office did not return calls seeking comment, but, according to an e-mail attributed to Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie, the governor’s transition team is working with the U.S. DOT to explore all possible federal financial options. But most likely, according to the e-mail, the money will be allocated within the state budget.

If the process so far is any indication, Schwartz said, he remains skeptical the project will receive money.

“Often politics and railroading,” he said, “just do not mix.”

7 comments

  1. That last line rings especially true when one considers the huge campaign-cash contributions to certain candidates – Concrete Scott Walker, most notably – from the roadbuilder cartel. The policy of allowing this sort of shadow government is the least wholesome part of the entire American electoral process.

  2. Nice one, Walker. What a bunch of retards. Apparently economics was not one of the few classes he could pass at Marquette.

  3. I agree with the comment by KarenJeffries. Road builders are sitting back in their chairs and puffing big cigars…..life is good in Wisconsin., now that the high speed rail plan is gone. They, and their lobbyist, seem to rule this state when it comes to transportation. “We don’t need no stupid railroad”, or any other mass transit ideas……just more and bigger roads, is the way the road builders and their lobbyist think. Wisconsin transportation needs, ideas, and future seems to be held hostage by the road builders, as they have been for many decades in the past. As motorist in Wisconsin, traveling to work and to vacations within this state, we can look forward to a prolific expansion and never ending maze of “orange barrels”. Traveling from northern Wisconsin back to East Troy, I noticed some roads that did not have any barracades or orange barrels…….QUICK…..ALERT THE ROAD BUILDERS….SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE ABOUT THIS!!!!.

  4. The people of this great state should be banging their heads against the wall for falling for this poor excuse for a Governor. This is what happens when low information voters use a knee jerk reaction instead of learning about their candidates up close and the agenda they want to perpetuate. I can’t wait to hear what this guy comes up with next!!

  5. The rail line may very well be in need of some maintenance, as is most of our infrastructure. However, when the State of Wisconsin applied for the HSR money they projected ZERO additional freight trips from Watertown to Madison up through 2030, thus there does not seem to be a burgeoning demand for additional freight on that stretch.

    As stated in the article: “Although this line definitely needs repairs and will probably be a candidate in the next few years, it does not have the same traffic as other freight lines,” Huntington said. “I suspect (Wisconsin & Southern) has other higher-priority projects.”

    This HSR horse is dead, time to move along.

  6. So let’s do some rough math here… Scott Walker objected to the maintenance and operating costs for HSR projected around $7,500,000 annually (which would have likely come down 90% to $750,000 after federal subsidy).

    The $35,000,0000 the state is now responsible for spending on freight rail upgrades would have covered, at worst, about 4 1/2 years of HSR operating costs. It would have likely covered about 46 years of operating costs with the negotiated number.

    Brilliant move. I guess this is the kind of shortsighted thinking we should expect from talk-radio-supported extremists.

  7. Are you really going to count on a federal subsidy? Not a smart thing to do given the transportation trust fund is repeatedly pillaged for other budget wants. Expect the Feds to be cutting everything to be able to pay for all the “entitlements”.

    The State’s portion of the $35 million is really $28 million. By saving the $7.5 million per year on 72 miles of “high speed” rail it can pay off the repairs to the freight line in less than 4 years and then take the $7.5 million in year 5 and move on the next infrastructure repairs.

    Given the article states that the Madison -Watertown tracks are not a priority for Wisconsin & Southern, why not spend the $7.5 million per year on areas that are a priority?

    You want to spend $817 million to build the train and $7.5 million every year there after in order to avoid paying $28 million in repairs on something the railroad does not have on it’s screen for immediate repair… Brilliant.

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