Does the train stop here?

The fastest thing about the Milwaukee to Madison high speed train may be the outgoing administration’s rush get as much of this venture in motion as possible before handing over the project to a new governor.

We’ve witnessed periodic announcements that ‘new’ funds are being ‘released’to finance the construction of the line itself and the various train stations along the route.

The state DOT continues to hold public informational meetings about the project.

The Secretary of the US Department of Transportation has gone so far as to say during a recent visit to Wisconsin. “High-speed rail is coming to Wisconsin—there’s no stopping it.” 

But is he correct?

“The feds gave the money to the state. It is up to the state to complete the project. If no contracts have been signed, the state can give the money back” says Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow with the Cato Institute who has been following high speed rail developments in Wisconsin.

In the past several months, Doyle’s DOT has been busy signing contracts, although they’ve not been very transparent about it.

The Business Journal of Milwaukee reported this spring:

The state’s rail bureau is scurrying to get contracts for the high-speed rail corridor between Milwaukee and Madison out the door so work on the controversial line is well under way in case Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is elected governor this fall.

That same article noted that “DOT officials would not talk to The Business Journal about the high-speed rail contract procedure.”

O’Toole said the contracts could make it difficult for a political figure to dismantle to project.

“If some contracts have been signed, then it will be tough for the state to give the rest of the money back and leave the project half completed,” said O’Toole.

Yet, in a recent debate both Republican candidates for governor have indicated that is precisely what they will do.

The Business Journal’s piece earlier this spring was in reaction to earlier statements by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

I attempted to get further comment from all three major candidates for governor. Although the campaigns of Congressman Mark Neumann and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett did not respond to the inquiries, their position on this project is clear. Like Walker, Neumann opposes it, while Barrett strongly supports the Milwaukee to Madison high speed rail line.

Walker reaffirmed his position to the MacIver Institute this week, in his strongest public comments on the matter to date.

“I am drawing a line in the sand – no matter how much money Governor Doyle, Mayor Barrett, and the Obama Administration try to spend before the end of the year, I will put a stop to this $810 million boondoggle the day I take office,” Walker told me. “This is not “free money,” and I refuse to commit our state to years of irresponsible spending down the road.  To truly help Wisconsin build the transportation infrastructure it needs and desires, we should use this money for roads and bridges instead.”

Not a lot of wiggle room there.

As O’Toole notes, while the state and federal DOTs rush to develop the Milwaukee to Madison rail project, the size, scope and cost of the plan has increased.

Most notably, the decision to move the Madison station from the Airport to just off the Capitol Square will increase the cost of the project, although Doyle Administration officials have not said by how much.

“The state grant application promised 79-mph trains by 2013 and 110-mph trains by 2016,” said O’Toole. “But moving the terminus the Monona Terrace instead of the airport will increase costs.”

O’Toole wonders, “Will there be enough money left over to make the upgrades needed for 110 mph trains? I strongly suspect not.”

O’Toole outlines a likely scenario with the continuing evolution of the Milwaukee to Madison rail project.

“Instead, the state will build a 79-mph train, attract a few riders, declare it to be a great success, then demand more money out of federal or state taxpayers to upgrade it to 110 mph. I also suspect that such upgrades will not be completed until long after 2016. So Wisconsin is going to end up with a white-elephant train that has poor ridership, high operating costs, and just enough special interest backing to keep it (and the losses) going for years.”

That is, unless the project is stopped.

Perhaps it is because of the forcefulness of Walker’s pronouncements, but that’s clearly something rail proponents are worried about. How else would you explain the recent meeting in Milwaukee wherein representatives of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association encouraged attendees to lobby lawmakers to favor the project?  Or the ongoing public relations efforts by the State DOT, much less their behind-the-scenes sprint to get contracts for the project executed.

If it all were a done deal there would be no mad scramble. There would be no push to get the public to contact lawmakers. There would be no PR campaign.

Despite Ray LaHood’s statement to the contrary, this one is far from over folks, stay tuned.

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective