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.
“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.”