Rail Controversy Grows to Include Milwaukee Station Construction

MacIver News Service | August 24, 2010

[Milwaukee, Wisc…] The skepticism over the Milwaukee to Madison rail line continues to focus on costs this week as the State Department of Transportation considers spending millions on upgrades to Milwaukee’s Amtrak station, a project that itself has been beset with controversy.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation plans to start an $18 million remodeling and expansion of the combined bus and train depot, known as the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, in October.  The new train shed will feature escalators, elevators, three boarding platforms and a mezzanine spanning five tracks. The DOT will hold a public informational meeting on the project Tuesday night from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the atrium at the station, 433 W. St. Paul Ave.

“We just can’t afford the boondoggle of a high speed rail system, and at an upcoming special meeting of the Common Council, I will be asking my colleagues to support a resolution asking the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to put a stop to the funding of the “Garage Mahal,” said Milwaukee Alderman Joe Dudzik.

However, fellow alderman Robert Buaman disagrees. He said the construction jobs created by the remodeling as well as the economic benefits of having modern, high-speed rail in Wisconsin “can only create positive momentum and a better quality of life for our residents.”

The existing train shed facility was built more than 30 years ago.?The DOT says it needs to be replaced and a new shed has been planned for several years. However given the controversies surrounding the Intermodal Station itself, and the Milwaukee to Madison rail project in general, the remodeling of the shed has drawn harsh rebukes from its critics.

Dudzik says the rail project is an example of misplaced priorities.

“Milwaukee has lost millions in tax base to recent flooding and sewer backups, and the city’s beat-up roadways and antiquated sewer system are badly in need of repair,” said Dudzik. “However, there’s a plan to renovate the train shed at the Amtrak depot for $16-$18 million?”

The existing Milwaukee Amtrak station itself was remodeled in 2007 and expanded to include a Greyhound bus depot. That project cost more than $15 million dollars. Although public funds were used on the project, the facility is leased to and operated by a private developer who benefited from Tax Incremental Financing and is responsible for paying property taxes on the building.

The developer, Milwaukee Intermodal Partners, reportedly spent nearly $3 million in the renovation.  The City of Milwaukee provided $6 million from a tax incremental financing district, and the remaining $6.8 million came from state and federal funds.  Despite the construction costs, the city assessed the value of the building at $5.7 million. That assessment has since been lowered and for 2010 the city now values the property at $3 million.

Adding to the controversy over the Intermodal Station are problems Milwaukee has had collecting taxes on the building. To avoid foreclosure on the property, Governor Jim Doyle announced earlier this month that the State of Wisconsin would pay the City of Milwaukee the property taxes owed by Milwaukee Intermodal Parters.  The total, which includes back taxes from 200, 2009, penalties and interest totals $341,461.