Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will Wisconsin's Governor Try To Get Rail Money?

One paper thinks that he might

The train to Madison may be dead, but the train to Chicago is as alive as ever.

Ridership on Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line has doubled in the past eight years, hitting a record 792,848 in 2010. And a new study rates the Hiawatha route as one of the nation's most promising prospects for an upgrade to high-speed rail.

Gov. Scott Walker has said little about his plans for the Hiawatha. But the Milwaukee-area business community strongly supports the route. Just days before the federal government yanked nearly all of the $810 million allocated for a Milwaukee-to-Madison line, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce offered Walker a plan to shift most of the cash to the Hiawatha and other existing rail service.

MMAC President Tim Sheehy believes his group's plan could lay the foundation for the future of high-speed rail in Wisconsin. He hopes the state will use the MMAC outline in another bid for federal high-speed rail money.

Walker campaigned on killing the train to Madison, which would have been a 110-mph extension of the 79-mph Hiawatha. Even if federal stimulus money would have covered all construction costs, Walker said he didn't want state taxpayers to pick up some $7.5 million in annual operating costs, after fare revenue. Revised ridership estimates could have cut $2.8 million off the state share, and the state could have used existing federal aid to cover up to 90% of its costs.

Although Walker didn't want the train, he argued for keeping the $810 million for highways, which would have required an act of Congress. But in a Nov. 14 television interview, Walker said he and his staff also had "looked at options relative to rail," including upgrades to the Hiawatha and the long-distance Empire Builder.

Since then, Walker's staff has not specifically answered repeated Journal Sentinel questions about what options they were exploring. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie has indicated, however, that the subject was still under discussion with federal officials after Dec. 9, when they canceled all but $2 million of the stimulus grant and redistributed the money to other states.

Sheehy and MMAC Vice President Pete Beitzel say their group gave Walker's staff an outline of how to use $450 million to $500 million of the stimulus money for rail upgrades without adding Milwaukee-to-Madison service. Sheehy said Walker seemed interested in the ideas.

Part of the MMAC plan focused on Hiawatha improvements, including renovating the train shed at the downtown Milwaukee Amtrak-Greyhound station, a $19.4 million project that would have been funded by the stimulus grant; and buying three new locomotives and a new set of passenger cars to supplement the two train sets already ordered from Talgo Inc., Beitzel said.

More frequent trips

A separate $12 million federal grant, unaffected by the Milwaukee-to-Madison controversy, is already paying for upgrades to the platform at the Mitchell International Airport station and to the Hiawatha tracks, and the state can use the remaining $2 million from the larger grant for Hiawatha upgrades.

With a third train, the Hiawatha could add an eighth, and perhaps even a ninth, daily round trip, Beitzel said. Hiawatha ridership has grown more than 99% since Amtrak and the state added a seventh round trip in late 2002.

Jay Sorensen, a Shorewood-based transportation consultant, said the Hiawatha attracts an even higher proportion of affluent business riders than his former employer, Midwest Airlines. He says authorities could double the Hiawatha's frequency "and demand would rise to meet that. . . . They could make it so blindingly convenient, by having trains every half-hour, that people say, 'Why am I driving?' "

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