Boondoggle Charges Prompt Wisconsin to Move Rail Station

Published June 18, 2010

Wisconsin officials have changed the location of a “high-speed” railroad station to try to douse fiery criticism that the project is a boondoggle.

Wisconsin in January won  $810 million in federal stimulus funds to build a so-called high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. Another $13 million will go to rail improvements on a Chicago-Milwaukee line and others.

Critics say “so-called” when referring to the project because the top speed initially would be 79 miles an hour, with 110 mph projected several years later as improvements are made. Even this projected future top speed is far slower than high-speed trains in Europe and Asia.
New Station Location
In May, responding to criticism of the Madison station’s original location at Dane County Airport— several miles from downtown—Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) announced the station will be built at Monona Terrace in the heart of the city.

The Republican candidate for governor, Scott Walker, said, “Every announcement by Gov. Doyle and [Milwaukee] Mayor [Tom] Barrett on their controversial train boondoggle further commits our state to their pet project that taxpayers literally cannot afford. Our state’s transportation fund has been raided to the tune of $1.2 billion, which has delayed badly needed investment in our existing roads and bridges across Wisconsin. As governor, I will stop this misguided and wasteful project.”

Barrett is Walker’s Democratic Party opponent in the governor’s race.

Annual Subsidies Near $28 Million
In June the Madison Transportation Board amended its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) to add $25 million in federal funding for preliminary engineering and final design of train stations and rail infrastructure improvements between Madison and Watertown, and $75 million for rail infrastructure improvements between Sun Prairie and Watertown.

This does not include funding for construction of the train stations and most of the rail infrastructure improvements scheduled for 2011 and 2012. This funding will be added as part of the 2011-2015 TIP.

Once the rail line is up and running, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation estimates annual operating costs of about $16.5 million. Officials hope ridership revenues will cover $9 million of this, leaving $7.5 million to be subsidized by taxpayers each year.

With another $8.1 million for upgraded service on a Milwaukee to Chicago line, the total annual subsidy is projected to be about $28 million by 2022. 

$6.6 Million Per Job
Proponents of the rail project promise economic development and job creation. They note Talgo, a Spanish firm, plans to locate its North American facility in Milwaukee, bringing 125 railcar-manufacturing jobs to the area.

“At a cost of $823 million for 125 jobs, that’s about $6.6 million per job,” observed Larry Kaufmann, senior advisor for the Pacific Economics Group. “Studies show rail projects almost never increase economic development; they only redistribute it to areas close to rail corridors.”

“Milwaukee has a combination Greyhound-Amtrak station,” said Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend). “After decades of use, the economic development consists of a small deli in the station, and a few vending machines. Since Madison is not as populated as Milwaukee and will not have the Greyhound Station, I expect the economic development there to consist of the vending machines without the deli.”

Harm to Bus Company
Grothman said the project might also hurt existing companies such as Badger Coaches, a privately owned bus service that has been transporting people to and from Milwaukee and Madison since 1946.

“It’s a crime that a good company like Badger Coaches will be forced to pay gas tax dollars to subsidize this new train which will become its primary competitor,” said Grothman.

John Meier, president of Badger Coaches, notes the train’s annual projected subsidies will be four to five times more than his company earns on their schedule route. 

“We could provide unbelievable service with that kind of subsidy,” Meier said. “We transport roughly 120,000 people a year at about $35 per round trip. The state’s projected ridership numbers are three times that. They’re going to be doing everything they can to get people on that train and get their numbers. We’re going to have to be very smart.”

Brien Farley ([email protected]) writes from Genesee, Wisconsin.