A Milwaukee alderman is criticizing Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to land federal stimulus money to upgrade a passenger train line between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Walker wants $150 million in grant money from the Federal Rail Administration for Hiawatha line work and to pay for the majority of a new train shed at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. But Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman said the governor is misleading the public about his commitment to rail.
“This is a mirage,” Bauman said. “All this does is create the appearance that this administration wants to advance transportation in the state.”
Given that Walker declined $810 million in federal rail money that would have paid for high-speed passenger rail from Milwaukee to Madison, Bauman said he doesn’t expect this or future transportations grant to be approved for Wisconsin.
“I think we’re dead in the water,” he said. “There is not any hope in the foreseeable future of getting money for any form of transportation from the federal government.”
In addition to covering the cost of two new train sets and eight replacement locomotives, Walker said, the federal grant money would allow for construction of a $60 million train shed.
The state is committed to building a $30 million shed near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The $810 million in federal money would have paid for the shed in full.
If the latest grant request is approved, the state would build a $60 million, expanded shed with a taxpayer cost of about $12 million, Walker said Tuesday. The state must pay 20 percent of the project cost as a stipulation of this particular grant.
“We’re already committed to pay $30 million for the maintenance facility,” he said. “This proposal allows to us get a building twice the size for less than half the amount of money the state would end up paying.”
But a bigger shed, Bauman said, likely will mean bigger long-term costs.
“Common sense says,” Bauman said, “if you are building a new shop, employees, managers, tools and parts will add additional costs to running those services that are now covered by Amtrak.”
The portion of the grant that would be used for the line, Walker said, differs from the previous federal grant in that the money would be used for improvements, which he supports, rather than new construction.
“This is an existing line that has had rapid growth on a corridor where there will not be any dispute among communities because the line already goes though, and itís already got access points,” he said. “This is just about improving equipment.”
Walker said the line improvements will offset taxpayer expense because ridership will increase, although he said ticket prices would not. Hiawatha riders account for about 65 percent of operating costs for the line, a percentage Walker said will increase with the improvements.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Hiawatha line serviced about 800,000 passengers last year and is on pace to eclipse that number in 2011.
Among the selling points of an improved line, Walker said, is an increase in speed from 79 mph to 110 mph, a difference that would cut travel time between Milwaukee and Chicago from 90 minutes to about an hour.
DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb said ridership could increase as much as 25 percent, based on similar increases in other states that improved passenger rail lines.
Still, Bauman chided the administration for not offering concrete proof the upgrades will increase ridership.
“Ridership may increase because gas prices are rising,” he said. “No part of the money being invested will directly increase ridership in any way, shape or form.”
The administration has until Monday to apply for the grant.
“If I were the Federal Rail Administration,” Walker said, “this is one I’d want to pick right off the bat.”