Wisconsin Denied Federal Aid to Improve Hiawatha Service

May 12, 2011
$150 million could have added capacity on Milwaukee-to-Chicago line.

Wisconsin was shut out Monday in its bid for $150 million in federal money to upgrade the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced 22 projects in 15 states would share $2 billion in federal high-speed rail money that had been rejected by Florida.

Wisconsin was seeking some of that money for train sets, locomotives and a maintenance base for the Hiawatha line. But while LaHood's announcement listed $268.2 million for other Midwestern states that had joined Wisconsin in the application, it made no mention of the Badger State.

Officials at the state and federal transportation departments confirmed no money would be awarded to Wisconsin. The federal agency had previously pulled an $810 million grant to the state after newly elected Gov. Scott Walker refused to use it to extend the Hiawatha from Milwaukee to Madison, a 110- mph stretch that would have been part of a larger plan to connect Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwestern destinations with fast, frequent trains.

In a telephone news conference, LaHood did not directly answer a question about whether Monday's decision was related to Walker's previous stand, which reversed 20 years of planning by predecessor administrations of both parties. But the transportation secretary repeatedly used the word "reliable" in characterizing the leadership of states selected for the latest round of grants.

"The announcements we're making today are with the strongest partners in America," LaHood told reporters.

"These are reliable people. These are people (who) have as one of their highest priorities the development of high-speed rail."

Walker is a Republican, as are the newly elected Florida and Ohio governors, who also rejected federally funded rail projects. LaHood is a former GOP congressman serving in Democratic President Barack Obama's administration. But several of the states that won high-speed rail grants Monday are led by Republican governors.


Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb voiced disappointment, saying in a written statement that "the state's applications were developed to support continued ridership growth and provide more reliable service. We remain committed to the Hiawatha as an important part of the state's transportation system. It's unfortunate the 800,000 passengers a year who use the Hiawatha service will not benefit from this latest distribution of federal funding."

Hiawatha ridership has more than doubled in the past eight years, to a record 792,848 in 2010, and is on track for another jump this year.

During the first four months of 2011, the trains provided 252,035 rides, up 7.8% from the same period last year. The service is strongly supported by the Milwaukee-area business community.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the decision "a disappointment" but "not a shock, given the attitude that Gov. Walker has displayed.

It's clear that the federal government wants to put these resources into states that are committed to high-speed rail. It was such a fiasco during the initial award period that the federal government doesn't want to go through that again."

The high-speed rail line to Madison was a key issue in the November gubernatorial campaign, with Barrett, the Democratic nominee, arguing the route would stimulate the state's economy. He lost that race to Walker, who opposed spending state tax money to operate the trains.

LaHood said the applications for this round of grants - from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak, totaling $10 billion, or five times as much money as was available - show "there's a pent-up demand for highspeed rail in America.

This is what the people want" to escape crowded highways and rising gas prices.

"High-speed rail is coming to America. There's no going back," LaHood said. "I'm optimistic not just because I believe in it, but because America believes in it."

That declaration recalled LaHood's statement less than a year ago, when Walker was a candidate campaigning against high-speed trains. In July, LaHood had stood beside then-Gov. Jim Doyle at a Watertown news conference and proclaimed: "High-speed rail is coming to Wisconsin. There's no stopping it."

In addition to the three governors who turned their backs on high-speed rail projects, the Republican majority in the U.S. House is seeking to cut high-speed rail spending nationwide, leaving the program's future uncertain.

At Milwaukee's downtown Amtrak station, Mike Schubert of Chicago said he was surprised Walker didn't want the money for a high-speed rail line to Madison.

"I think it was ridiculous when the government turned back the money. Can you think of a major city in Europe that isn't connected by train?" said Schubert, who travels by train to Milwaukee about half a dozen times a month for work.

The money Wisconsin was seeking in Monday's round of funding would have been a step toward high-speed rail but would not have covered track improvements needed to speed up the Hiawatha from 79 mph to 110 mph. Instead, the money would have provided:

Two new train sets of seven cars each to supplement the two 14-car train sets already ordered from Talgo Inc., the Spanish train manufacturer with a factory on Milwaukee's north side. That would have provided the capacity to increase Hiawatha service from the current seven daily round trips.

Eight new locomotives. Like the train sets, they would have replaced aging Amtrak-owned equipment and boosted capacity.

A new maintenance base in Milwaukee to service the state-owned trains. The current equipment is serviced mainly in Chicago.

Helen Wiedeman would have liked to see more round trips. Wiedeman lives in rural Missouri and drives to Quincy, Ill., to catch the train to Chicago before transferring to the line to Milwaukee.

"I think Amtrak is important. It would be nice to get some more trains," Wiedeman said. "The last train to Chicago is 3 p.m. My daughter and future son-in-law often take it to Chicago, and an improvement of equipment would make a big difference."

Barrett calls for a 'plan B' Barrett said Walker now must develop a "plan B" for upgrading the Hiawatha and ensuring Talgo's future in Milwaukee. The company has already said it is likely to move its manufacturing operations to Illinois after fulfilling its current orders from Wisconsin and Oregon, although the current plant would become the new maintenance base.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said state officials "will continue to look for costeffective ways to improve Wisconsin's existing infrastructure network, expand where feasible and maintain what we already have."

Other Midwestern states shared $672.3 million, or onethird of the dollars handed out Monday. In addition to the $268.2 million for train sets and locomotives for Illinois, Michigan and Missouri, the grants included $196.5 million to Michigan to upgrade tracks for 110-mph service between Chicago and Detroit, and $186.3 million to Illinois to upgrade tracks for 110-mph service between Chicago and St. Louis, plus smaller amounts to plan a 110- mph Minneapolis-to-Duluth line, a Michigan train station and a Missouri railroad bridge.

Wisconsin and Kansas were the only Midwestern states that didn't get any of the money they sought. The federal announcement mentions Indiana, where Walker has cited Gov. Mitch Daniels as a role model, and Iowa, where Gov. Terry Branstad has voiced skepticism about high-speed rail, among the states sharing in the money for train equipment. But Indiana and Iowa did not apply for any of the federal money and apparently were mentioned only because the routes affected pass through those states, said Mike Riley, Indiana rail manager, and Tamara Nicholson, Iowa rail transportation director.

Projects in the Northeast were awarded $945.2 million, West Coast projects were awarded $384.5 million and $19 million will go to Southern states.

The federal government had previously redistributed $810 million spurned by Wisconsin and $400 million that Ohio Gov. John Kasich had refused to use for a 79-mph line connecting his state's three largest cities. Some of that money was shifted to Florida, where it became part of the $2.4 billion rejected by Gov. Rick Scott. Congress subsequently canceled $400 million of that spending authority, leaving the $2 billion that was divided up Monday. Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida did not seek any rail funding in this round.

Meg Jones of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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