Getting closer: Wisconsin lands $800 million for high-speed rail
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Wisconsin will receive more than $800 million to build a high-speed rail line carrying passengers between Milwaukee and Madison at 110 mph and recapture a piece of a regional rail system largely abandoned six decades ago.
The high-speed line could be up and running as early as 2013, the state says.
President Barack Obama mentioned the federal investment in high-speed rail in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night and was expected to announce the specific awards for 13 projects nationally at an event in Florida on Thursday morning.
A fact sheet issued by the White House lists the $810 million for the stations and track improvements necessary for the high-speed line connecting the state's two largest cities, along with improvements to the Amtrak Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago that will serve as the building blocks for a 110-mph service along that route.
Ridership on that line nearly doubled from 397,518 passengers in 2002 to 766,167 in 2008, then leveled off in 2009. The decrease was blamed on the recession, which decreased travel across various modes of transportation.
The federal funding is part of an $8 billion package of rail grants approved by Congress in the 2009 economic recovery act. It provides money to build up the tracks and start operation of a high-speed rail connection that had been stalled in Wisconsin for decades.
"I am really pleased with President Obama's investment in the future of Wisconsin's economy," Gov. Jim Doyle said late Wednesday. "This is a major job creation project that will provide a long-term boost to our economy.
"Through high-speed rail we will connect the major centers of commerce in Wisconsin and in the region. This was a national competition, and the results clearly demonstrate that Wisconsin had a very strong application."
As it pursued the federal funds, the state last year decided to purchase two 14-car train sets manufactured by the Spanish company Talgo Inc. Those cars are expected to be built in Wisconsin.
The advance work helped put Wisconsin in a favorable position to win the federal stimulus dollars. The effort also benefited from the planning and engineering work done on the tracks that will be used to carry the high-speed trains.
The route is expected to include stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown.
Eventually, the high-speed line could be extended from Madison to the Twin Cities.
Job creation cited
Doyle promoted the Milwaukee-Madison rail link as an initiative to create jobs in Wisconsin and provide a missing element in southern Wisconsin's transportation options. In earlier lobbying, he said the high-speed line would create nearly 13,000 jobs, reduce auto trips by 7.8 million over 10 years and save millions of gallons of fuel.
Obama also touted the job-creating benefits of rail projects and included the federal grants in the economic stimulus package pushed through Congress last year. Nearly half the states submitted 45 applications for the high-speed rail funding.
The administration promised that the grants would be allocated based on the merits of the individual projects.
The work to upgrade the tracks to accommodate the high-speed trains from downtown Milwaukee to the Dane County Regional Airport is projected to cost roughly $651.8 million. Doyle sought $817 million in federal funds to cover contingencies and inflation.
Advocates and opponents have debated the value of investments in high-speed rail for decades.
Those opposed to the rail project argued that it would waste transportation dollars that the state can't afford to spend, and reduce the amount of money available to maintain and improve freeways.
The high-speed line funded with the federal allocation follows and expands on a rail corridor that existed throughout the early part of the last century, and eventually gave way to I-94.
"There have been discussions along this line for 20 years at least," said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. "It's very expensive, and we've been having trouble finding money to meet existing needs."
The challenge in the future will be to find the money for ongoing operations of the high-speed rail system, Thompson said.
Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, called the award an "exciting first step" in building a system that connects cities in the region and ultimately across the country.
"Currently, people are forced to drive, and that's the most expensive and least productive way to travel," he said. "We have to find more convenient, faster and less-expensive ways to travel in order to have a strong economy."
Patrick Marley and Diana Marrero of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.