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Rail project money bypasses Wisconsin

By James Briggs

A northbound Amtrak train pulls away from the rail station Monday at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Amtrak and 15 states are getting money Wisconsin rejected for high-speed rail projects. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Wisconsin could become a Midwest black hole of modern train travel after the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision Monday to award more than $400 million to the Badger State’s neighbors for rail projects.

Passenger train lines throughout the region, such as routes between Chicago and Detroit and Chicago and St. Louis, will receive federal money for upgrades to accommodate speeds of more than 100 mph, USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced.

The projects will “make service in the region more attractive, and make it even less likely someone would choose to fly,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The federal grants bypassed Wisconsin, though, and the 90-mile train trip between Milwaukee and Chicago will continue to last an hour and a half for the foreseeable future.

Gov. Scott Walker applied for $150 million in March to upgrade the Hiawatha line between the cities. The application came just months after Walker rejected $810 million in federal money that not only would have upgraded the Hiawatha but also expanded it to Madison.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor was “disappointed” with the U.S. DOT’s decision. The administration, Werwie said, “will continue to look for cost-effective ways to improve Wisconsin’s existing infrastructure network, expand where feasible and maintain what we already have.”

But Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a Madison-based public transportation advocacy group, said the application was doomed before Walker submitted it.

“I’m a little surprised (USDOT) even opened the envelope. Maybe they didn’t,” Hiniker said. “I can’t imagine there’s a single policy reason in the world this (Obama) administration would give 1 cent to rail in Wisconsin after what (Walker) did.”

The rejected application, Hiniker said, represents a stunning reversal for the future of train travel in Wisconsin.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (left) is joined by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ (center), and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, at an announcement in New York's Penn Station on Monday. LaHood announced nearly $800 million in projects to improve rail service in the crowded Northeast, part of a $2 billion award going to rail projects in 15 states nationwide. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“What’s amazing is, five months ago, Wisconsin was the best-positioned state in the Midwest, if not the country, to go to the next step on high-speed rail due to 20 years of groundwork by Gov. (Tommy) Thompson and Gov. (Jim) Doyle,” Hiniker said. “Even before he was given the keys to the state, Scott Walker derailed that whole thing.”

The $150 million Walker applied for in March would not have turned the Hiawatha into a high-speed rail line, but the money would have set the table for future upgrades. Walker wanted to use the money to pay for two train sets and eight locomotives, as well as construction of a train maintenance building in Milwaukee.

The Doyle administration, Walker said in March, already agreed to build the $30 million maintenance project, but Walker asked USDOT to cover two-thirds of the cost.

Werwie directed questions about the future of the maintenance building to the state Department of Transportation, representatives from which did not respond to a request for comment late Monday afternoon.

Michigan, Illinois and Missouri will split $404.1 million of the $2.02 billion pie made available when Florida Gov. Rick Scott, like Walker, rejected money that previously had been allocated for high-speed rail projects.

Overall, 15 states received money for 22 projects.

USDOT’s decision not to offer some money back to Wisconsin, Hiniker said, was the only logical conclusion to the months-long drama surrounding high-speed rail.


“(Walker) thinks rail is a waste of money,” Hiniker said, “and unfortunately the rest of us in this state have to live with the consequences of that decision.”


  1. Karen Jeffries

    Now if Amtrak and/or Talgo and/or the Canadian Pacific had greased Walker’s palm like the roadbuilders and Wisconsin & Southern CEO quietly did, Wisconsin would be seeing a different result.

  2. Clearly Walker is a threat to the Democratic Party and their union base. Is it really a surprise that the current administration turned down Walker’s request?

    Take a look at what Walker wanted to spend the $150 million on. Train sets and a new maintenance building. Do you think Talgo or Amtrak would have benefited from those projects? My guess is they would have been in full support.

  3. Lets see —- Walker Pushes an anti rail agenda — Cancels a major investment in Wisconsin by the Feds in High speed rail that would have eventually connected Minneapolis , Madison , Milwaukee and Chicago and now it the unions fault that the US government has chosen to give money to other states and not Wisconsin to upgrade rail lines —- Give it up Fletch Your union bias is getting old

  4. Sorry Joe,

    Perhaps I was not clear. It is safe to say that Walker’s stand against the union (budget repair bill) and his stand on HSR did not endear him with the administration, thus the Federal funds for the rail improvements that Walker does support will not be forthcoming.

    Anti-union bias? You bet. Born and raised in Flint, Michigan. I saw the UAW destroy an industry. In 25 years as an employee for union contractors I have seen the true colors of union leadership many times.

  5. When Scott Walker blew away Wisconsin’s $810 million federal high-speed rail grant and all its related jobs on the pretext it would cost the state too much to operate
    (in actuality about $750,000 a year) and that it would be too slow (in actuality,125 mph by 2013) and run from Milwaukee to Madison (in actuality,it eventually would have been extended across Wisconsin to the Twin Cities), he did a huge favor for the other states in the Northeast, Midwest and California that got Wisconsin’s money.

    Wisconsinites who idle away $4-per-gallon gasoline prices sitting in traffic jams will have time enough to ponder why they voted for Scott Walker, who is so ideologically opposed to the Obama administration that he is damaging the state in doing so.

    So now, fifteen other states with far more-visionary leadership, all of which realize the benefits (political as well as monetary) of federal funding, are getting Wisconsin’s foolishly-rejected transportation money, and some of them have free-thinking Republicans in charge, such as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder who got almost $200 million to speed up the Dearborn-Kalamazoo line between Chicago and Detroit.
    Several Amtrak corridors will be likewise improved in New York, Chicago-St. Louis, Los Angeles-San Francisco, and a new Dallas-Houston route … and Wisconsinites will be paying into them.

    Scott Walker’s shenanigans are a national joke everywhere except in Wisconsin, and the reality of what he is costing the state is sinking in a bit more each month.

  6. Historians will look back at the months after the November 2010 elections and wonder what Scott Walker and the Republican governors of Florida and Ohio were thinking, rejecting 45 percent of all the funding under the 2009 American recovery act’s high-speed rail program where 80 percent of Americans would have access to high-speed rail within 25 years.

    The actual thought of Scott Walker giving Wisconsin’s money back never occurred to many people at the time, but that’s just what happened when Walker shut down the federal rail project on which
    construction had already begun with Walker insisting – improbably – that hardly anyone would ride trains going faster than road traffic
    between the state capital and Wisconsin’s largest city.

    Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood then redistributed Wisconsin’s rejected money. California got $690 million for the Los Angeles-San Francisco and San Francisco-Sacramento corridors. Maine got $3.3 million to stretch Downeaster service. The damage from Walker’s actions will take some time to unfold.

    We’re facing global warming, shrinking fuel supplies, aging populations and worsening traffic jams while federal surveys confirm that the most expensive form of public surface transportation is one single person driving on a freeway.

  7. Fondued cheesehead

    Where’s the blame to Obama and LaHood ? Take it or leave it,needed or not. Why not use the money to improve Milwaukee -Chicago ? A run that is used. As to global warming—don’t believe it. As to shrinking fuel supplies—drill baby drill–aging populations —Obama care will take care of that—worsening traffic jams—yeah–use some of that rail $$$ to improve the zoo interchange.

    There is a train that runs from Milwaukee to Minneapolis already(on to Seattle)–goes through Sun Praire near Madison. Or take the Badger bus to Madison. You Walker haters are probably Bush haters too—–there are provisions on the tax forms for you to voluntarily pay more–go for it. But I don’t want to pay anything to subsidize your train ride to Madison.

  8. Right, let’s talk subsidies. (Besides, that is, Scott Walker’s magnificent executive mansion with all its servants.) The Marquette interchange cost over $800 million to rebuild, and the Zoo interchange could cost $2.3 billion to rebuild. The Madison HSR line would take a subsidy of $750,000 per year in Wisconsin funds, and instead, thanks to Scott Walker, Wisconsin must pay to build HSR lines across America except in Wisconsin. The Feds announced that 31 states would share in about $8 billion in stimulus dollars targeted for high-speed rail, with $5.5 billion marked just for California, Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin. Wisconsin had received all it asked for, $810 million because the state had a good plan and because Wisconsin was central to the network. And still on the topic of subsidy: Wisconsin sends $45 million a year in taxes to Washington but gets back only 86 cents of each $1. (And all these anti-Walker comments we read aren’t necessarily from Democrats and/or liberals. I happen to be an independent conservative.)

  9. Karen, you keep dropping a zero, but what is a factor of 10 eh? The HSR would have saddled the State with a $7.5 MILLION dollar operating annual operating deficit.

    With regard to the Zoo interchange, a “preferred” alternative has been selected that has trimmed the budget by a cool $600 million dollars. You might be interested to know that it is the busiest interchange in the state with over 300,000 vehicles (30,000 being trucks) utilizing it on a daily basis. Re-building it is not an option. The train would have been a “nice amenity”, but not necessary. The decision to go with a train, or no train had zero impact on the need to rebuild the zoo and did not influence the design, or capacity in any way.

    Let’s see, the $8 billion of money the federal govenment does not have would have built how many trains to nowhere? $5.5 billion in California alone to go from Madera to Taft? Please. What’s in Taft? a prison. I guess the train will give the parolees a nice ride to the gateway to Yosemite. It’s nothing more than spending money for the sake of spending money.

  10. Fondued –

    First, factual correction: The Empire Builder goes through COLUMBUS – 35 miles northeast of Madison – NOT Sun Prairie. And service is only once a day. The rail corridor which was slated to be rebuilt from Watertown to Madison (as past of the rejected $810 Million) goes through Sun Prairie. And in the absence of federal High-Speed Rail funding, this segment MUST be rebuilt to keep freight traffic running along it (the rail itself is more than 75 years old, and trains are limited to 10 MPH for safety).

    Second – Show me Badger Bus’ Madison Depot. It doesn’t exist anymore. The dropoff is at a 24-hour gas station/convenience store on West Washington. Helluva way to introduce foreign business leaders to Wisconsin’s State Capitol.

    The point you miss is that the corridor to Madison was part of a larger system to connect Madison and Milwaukee to Chicago and the Twin Cities – and then on to St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, and other Midwestern centers of industry, technology, and higher education. What is lost is the ability of UW-Madison to work with major multi-national businesses with Chicago offices – and with that goes this state’s ability to compete globally. Sadly, the best and the brightest in this state are left to either suffer with the decisions of fools, or relocate to where their skills are desired, not derided.

    P.S. We can drill all we want here – but if Chinese refineries outbid the US producers, there’s no law to keep domestic production in the US. Oil is globally traded – and if you haven’t noticed, the GLOBAL production of oil has plateaued. The easy oil is gone from the planet. All that remains are the tough, expensive extractions – three miles deep, or in -60 degree climate, or under 3 miles of ocean. Wake up from your dream and smell the (also much more expensive as of late) coffee.

  11. The writer above is actually correct on the figure of $7.5 million needed as an operating subsidy but, just like Scott Walker, totally and conveniently neglects the fact that Amtrak always pays 90 percent of any subsidies, leaving $750,000 as the annual state-paid operating subsidy, as has been repeated ad infinitum by many sources to those who care to read them.

    Then this inept college-dropout governor realized that the Hiawatha line needs new trains and eight locomotives, all of which had been included in that original $810 million rail grant. So he asked US DOT Secretaty Ray LaHood for money for those.

    I would have liked to be a fly on the wall when LaHood opened that request, but all we really know is that LaHood wouldn’t say exactly why he turned Wisconsin down flat after Scott Walker blew away two decades of costly planning and work from a lot of people including Tommy Thompson, Scott McCallum and Jim Doyle, but he did drop one hint when he kept using the word “reliable” to describe the leadership of states that finally were awarded rail funding.

    Fact is, now all our neighbors are getting federal train help but Wisconsin. Talgo will probably close and move its jobs to Illinois. Wisconsin taxpayers will now foot the bill to upgrade the Hiawatha, where ridership has doubled in the past eight years to a record 792,848 in 2010. That $150 million Wisconsin will now need would have subsidized the HSR line for nearly 20 years. Scott Walker’s overblown, unjustified Capitol “palace guard” security cost $7 million in a few months, but he blew away $810 million for the HSR while the rest of the Midwest builds out high speed rail infrastructure with an eye toward the future.

    Right, LET’S talk subsidies, like those for Scott Walker’s three-story 13-bathroom seven-bedroom seven-fireplace seven-servant 21,000-square-foot $1.63 million 34-room taxpayer-supported mansion on a 3.7 acre estate. It’s hard to set a good example when you live in a mansion paid for by others staffed by a fulltime personal chef, fulltime gardener, fulltime custodian and fulltime mansion “director” to supervise the flower arranger, the housekeeper and the waitstaff being paid $262,500 per year (according to the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau) or $1.06 million over four years, providing the voters let him stay that long, which seems increasingly doubtful.

  12. You just don’t get it do you? Even if Amtrak “pays” 90%, who pays for Amtrak? It is hardly a money making venture in it’s own right. You want to saddle a dying entity with more debt. There’s the kind of smart thinking that has gotten us trillions in debt.

    Is Scott Walker’s residence the same one Diamond Jim Doyle lived in? Is it the same one 14 governors have occupied since 1920?

  13. Mr. Fletcher, your categorization of Amtrak as a “dying entity” is factually challenged. Even if a Tea Party candidate were to take the White House in 2013, REPUBLICAN AND DEMOCRATIC members of Congress would unite – as they have for 40 years – to ensure the long-distance runs (which are the big money losers for Amtrak) would be preserved.

    Meanwhile, BUSINESS LEADERS would push Congress to continue providing service on the shorter-distance runs in major metropolitan corridors, including the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha.

    The facts are clear – business travelers using passenger trains can work on reports, legal briefs, presentations, and other duties worthy of their $100-plus-per-hour rates. They can’t do that if they’re driving – or on cramped buses. We need more travel options for these creators of new, dynamic, high-growth, high-wage businesses. Cars and planes alone won’t cut it. If you don’t believe me, ask the countless folks in suits carrying attache cases (some embossed with the name of their legal firm) on the Hiawatha runs between Chicago and Milwaukee.

  14. Irwin Fletcher’s comments just beg for rebuttal, don’t they? Like where he says:

    “Even if Amtrak “pays” 90%, who pays for Amtrak?”

    General revenues from all of us pay, whether or not we get the service. And where he says:

    “It is hardly a money making venture in it’s own right.”

    Either are roads, airports and harbors, also subsidized by general revenues. And get this:

    “You want to saddle a dying entity with more debt.”

    Prove it’s “dying”. Facts, not just babbling.

    “Is Scott Walker’s residence the same one Diamond Jim Doyle lived in? Is it the same one 14 governors have occupied since 1920?”

    Yep, the very same one. Difference is, none of those other fourteen ever rattled on about the state being broke. Scott Walker could have make a real coup by cutting his own expenses while he demanded everyone else cut theirs. He could have, but he was hoping nobody would notice. Well, people noticed.

  15. Where WI really needs new HS rail is between Camp Douglas and Wyeville, currently a railcar storage track. That sets up a “new” route between MSP, Eau Claire, WI Dells, Portage, Madison, Janesville, Arlington Heights, Ohare, Chicago. A five or so hour trip instead of at least eight. Ohare and MSP. five hours possible without exotic super HS rail stuff. Madison an easy TWO. Developing (or RE) central WI. Opening a gateway to N and NW WI. Getting places that used to be on a passenger rail map off the freaking BUS.

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