Questions Remain as Wisconsin Takes Lead on Midwest Rail Line Push

Published October 1, 2009

It would reach downtown Milwaukee, but stop nearly six miles shy of downtown Madison.

Nobody really knows how many people would ride.

Yet a proposed high-speed rail line linking Wisconsin’s two largest cities—with a price tag of half-a-billion dollars—remains at the heart of an intensive campaign by top state officials, including Gov. Jim Doyle (D), to land federal stimulus money.

“We’re maybe one of the only states in the country, … if not the only one, that’s actually planned for this moment,” Doyle declared July 17 in announcing a new partnership with the Spanish train company, Talgo, to provide sleek new rail cars. “This truly is the most shovel-ready rail project in the Midwest and, I think, the U.S.”

Part of Multistate Project

If approved, the 85-mile line stretching from the downtown Milwaukee Amtrak station to Dane County Regional Airport would be one of the largest projects in Wisconsin funded under the $787 billion federal stimulus plan. Department of Transportation officials say the state hopes to get between $500 million and $600 million in stimulus money for the project, which would include improvements to existing service between Milwaukee and Chicago and would attract an estimated 900,000 riders by 2020.

A 2008 report prepared for the DOT estimated that by 2020, 188,000 passengers a year would take the trip between Madison and Milwaukee, and an additional 155,000 passengers would take the trip between Madison and Chicago.

The stimulus funds would revive passenger rail service to the capital city for the first time in four decades and would become part of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a 3,000-mile web of routes envisioned between major cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and the Twin Cities.

State transportation spokesman Christopher Klein said that record ridership in Wisconsin on Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail service, shows the state is ready for more. “Wisconsin doesn’t need to prove we want to ride trains,” Klein said. “We already have.”

Missing Important Details

But an investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students found the state might not be quite ready for rail:

* Officials in four cities where stops are planned—Brookfield, Madison, Oconomowoc, and Watertown—are enthusiastic supporters but remain unaware of many of the details. Klein said Wisconsin is ahead of most states in planning, but he cited a federal report that acknowledged some details aren’t worked out because “states have had little time to prepare for a … program for intercity passenger rail of this magnitude.”

* Critics question the viability of the planned stop at the Madison airport, which is nearly six miles from the city’s major downtown destinations. Klein said bringing the train downtown would add at least half an hour to the trip, which would be “extremely undesirable” for passengers not stopping in Madison.

* Other benefits of the project have been thrown into doubt by a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report that concluded rail projects would have “little impact on the congestion, environmental, energy and other issues that face the U.S. transportation system.”

* The description “high-speed” is a misnomer. State transportation officials say the train likely would average about 70 miles per hour the first few years. The train is expected to travel up to 110 miles per hour by 2015 once the state completes additional safety improvements.

Nationwide Rush for Money

Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi said officials across the country are scrambling to complete plans to take advantage of soon-to-be-released $8 billion for rail. “Nobody was ready for it. … None of us [state transportation secretaries] knew it was going to happen,” he said.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog based in Washington, DC, cautioned against projects that aren’t fully planned.

“Some economists argue that it doesn’t matter much how the stimulus money is spent, just that it is spent,” the group said in a March column on stimulus transportation projects. “We beg to differ. This is an enormous investment and debt we are undertaking. We need assurance the money is spent wisely and appropriately.”

Busalacchi said the Madison to Milwaukee line would help the state’s economy, according to a 2006 study. It estimated that a fully operational Midwestern high-speed rail system would spur 9,570 added jobs in Wisconsin, meaning jobs would be saved or added because of improved transit, and service sector jobs would be created in the communities with stops. In addition, 3,000 construction jobs would be created over a 10-year period.

Doubts about Estimates

Those estimates may overstate the actual number of jobs that would be created, according to Eric Sundquist, senior associate at the Center On Wisconsin Strategy, a liberal-leaning policy center. The problem, Sundquist said, is that estimates are based on an entire Midwest train system, not just the new Wisconsin segment.

Busalacchi, acknowledging the uncertainty of the project’s ability to restart the Wisconsin economy, said, “Is it worth it? I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Some involved in local planning for the high-speed rail line doubt Wisconsinites would park their cars to ride the train.

“The business community thinks … that because it’s a train, people will use it,” said Eileen Bruskewitz, a Dane County supervisor and member of the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board. “I just don’t buy that. Do we really need to spend billions of dollars to build a train line when everything points to using rubber tires to get from point A to point B?”

Lexie Clinton ([email protected]) is an intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Journalism students Doug Shore, Royston Sim, and Amanda Hoffstrom and WCIJ reporter Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. The nonprofit WCIJ ( collaborates with its partners—Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication—and other news media.