Early this year, the dream of high-speed passenger rail service seemed almost on the brink of becoming a reality.
Now, after the midterm elections, plans for the service linking Chicago and the Twin Cities could be sidetracked indefinitely, if not derailed, to the dismay of Minnesota rail boosters.
Last spring, a filled banquet room at St. Paul’s convention center heard keynote speaker Eric Peterson, president of the American High Speed Rail Alliance, lay out a template for bringing faster passenger trains to the United States. A few minutes later, panelists zooming in for a closer look at the topic drew a packed house at the University of Minnesota’s annual transportation research gathering.
Fueling the buzz was President Obama’s decision, a few months earlier, to provide $8 billion in stimulus grants to jump-start proposals designed to bring fresh, faster and more frequent passenger train service to 31 states.
Wisconsin came up as a huge winner, landing the fourth largest of those grants — fully 10 percent of the total, or $810 million. The money was seen as enough to build out the route between Milwaukee and Madison, a link absolutely essential to the proposed Twin Cities-Chicago high-speed rail corridor.
But in Milwaukee, Scott Walker was having none of this. Soon, Walker, the Milwaukee County executive, would make opposition to the Milwaukee-Madison rail link a centerpiece of his campaign for governor. Walker’s notrain.com website, which branded the project a boondoogle, urged Wisconsin voters to sign his letter to Obama asking that the $810 million grant be redirected to the growing backlog of bridge and road work needed throughout the state.
A video “open letter” from Scott Walker to President Barack Obama
On Nov. 2, Walker, a Republican, defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to become Wisconsin’s next governor. Barrett and outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle, both Democrats, were strong supporters of the Milwaukee-Madison route.
Saying no to a big grant
Following his election victory, Walker reiterated that he wants the state to reject the grant. Work had already begun to upgrade two main segments of the link: the Canadian Pacific corridor now traversed by Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger trains between Milwaukee and Watertown, and a state-owned rail corridor from Watertown on to Madison.
But in view of Walker’s post-election comments, Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi told contractors to halt work on the project. Days later, Doyle said he has “put the project on pause” so that Walker and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood can discuss it.
LaHood has said the grant can’t be redirected to road and bridge projects and will go to other states’ passenger rail initiatives if Wisconsin spurns the money.
On Friday, Walker moderated his position somewhat. He said he won’t push immediately for a final decision on whether the $810 rail grant for the Milwaukee-Madison link can be redirected to others uses as long as Doyle doesn’t try to restart construction of the line.
Scott Rogers, co-chair of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition in Eau Claire, says Wisconsin was the only state to get all of the money it asked for in the $8 billion round of grants. All told, the federal government received 259 proposals from 41 states asking for $57 billion. Now some of those grant-seekers are quickly lining up for the money that seemed headed for Wisconsin.
“This would mean we would have to go to the back of the line,” Rogers says. “That’s not a legacy we want to have.”
The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce is among the leading backers of the higher-speed service to Chicago. The rail project is a key part of a $237 million plan to turn downtown St. Paul’s Union Depot into a major transportation hub.
Shelving the Milwaukee-Madison part of the Twin Cities-Chicago high-speed route “is definitely a concern for us,” says Zach Schwartz, transportation manager for the chamber.
“In recent days, Walker’s opposition to the grant has been generating more vocal support for it. A new savethetrainwisconsin.org website now claims 8,000 backers. And on Sunday, Wisconsin’s largest daily newspaper, the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, published a lengthy editorial urging Walker to reconsider his position.”
Proposals for beefing up passenger rail service in Minnesota were not an issue in the state’s gubernatorial campaign this year. But one other newly elected GOP governor, Ohio’s John Kasich, has also pledged to reject federal stimulus money that was part of Obama’s $8 billion round of grants.
However, that stipend, half the size of the Wisconsin grant, was to help resurrect Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati passenger service with trains running at maximum speeds of only 79 miles an hour. The proposed Twin Cities-Chicago trains could reach speeds of 110 miles an hour.
And unlike the Milwaukee-Madison route, the Ohio corridor would not be part of the proposed higher-speed network upgrade that would fan out across the Midwest from a hub in Chicago.
Key cog in Midwest network
The Twin Cities-Chicago route accounts for a fourth of the projected ridership for all of the higher-speed rail routes proposed to originate in Chicago, according to Minnesota rail planner Dave Christianson.
The proposal has been backed by a tri-state alliance of state governments in each of the three states that would be part of the route: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. If Wisconsin pulls out, plans for the service linking Chicago and the Twin Cities are endangered.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been designated as the lead agency in planning for the portion of the route running from the Madison area over to the Twin Cities. MnDOT has been working with Wisconsin transportation planners to choose that part of the route.
All of the realistic routes proposed between the two metropolitan areas include considerable stretches in Wisconsin, says Christianson, who is MnDOT’s project manager for Minnesota’s rail plan.
But after Busalacchi’s disclosure, the steady run of emails and conference calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota planners working on the Chicago-Twin Cities route suddenly ceased, Christianson says.
Christianson describes the Milwaukee-Madison rail corridor project as “completely ‘shovel-ready,'” a term that has been applied to federal stimulus projects ready to go and thus able to create jobs quickly.
Obama’s grants, to move ahead on long-gestating proposals to establish Chicago as a hub for enhanced passenger rail service, differ from stimulus-backed plans for faster service in Florida and California. Those two states won grants to help fund initiatives for trains moving at more than 220 miles an hour. Such speeds are comparable to those of the bullet trains that operate in France, Japan and now China, in new rail corridors rather than on upgraded existing tracks.
The proposals for routes fanning out from Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwest metropolitan centers are more modest and far less pricey than for “true high-speed” bullet trains. But while they call for trains to operate only half as fast and to share the tracks with freight trains, their amped-up speeds would clip more than two hours from the more than eight hours it now takes Amtrak’s Empire Builder to make the Chicago-to-St. Paul journey.
The timing for the proposed service is five and three-fourths hours from downtown Chicago to St. Paul’s Union Depot. Stops in downtown Madison and elsewhere could boost the time to slightly more than six hours. Extending the route to Target Field in Minneapolis would add another 20 minutes.
That means the trains could make the journey in roughly the time it took each of three competing passenger trains — The Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha, the Burlington’s Zephyr and the Chicago & North Western’s 400 — to do it in the 1930s.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Walker pledged to shape a business climate that would lead the private sector to create 250,000 in Wisconsin by the end of his first term, but the immediate impact of rejecting the stimulus grants would cost jobs. Project officials have estimated that construction employment would peak at 4,732 jobs in 2012 and that operations and maintenance of the route would add 55 permanent jobs. Transit-oriented development along the route is also expected to generate new jobs.
Talgo, a Spanish train manufacturer, recently opened a plant in Milwaukee in part because of the prospect of building train sets for the Milwaukee-Madison route. The company had hoped to employ 125 workers there by next year. Now it is weighing a move out of Wisconsin if the route is abandoned.
But if the $810 million could somehow be steered to road projects, that would also create construction jobs. Walker’s campaign was heavily backed by road builders.
Walker also has criticized the cost of subsidizing operations of the trains, estimated at $7.5 million a year once the route goes into service. Project backers counter that the federal government would provide almost all of that subsidy, as it does now for Amtrak’s popular passenger rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Walker’s position isn’t the only hurdle to making high-speed rail linking the Twin Cities and Chicago a reality.
Estimates for the cost of building the route out from the Madison area to the Twin Cities range from $800 million to $2 billion, according to Christianson. The cost depends partly on which route is chosen and on how the trains get into the Madison area. The two routes seen as leading contenders are:
• Amtrak’s current route, which runs from St. Paul southeast along the west shore of the Mississippi River to enter Wisconsin at La Crosse.
• Existing, freight-only tracks that head east from St. Paul into Wisconsin at Hudson and then on to Eau Claire and the Madison area.
The capital costs for either route could be spread out over many years and shared by Wisconsin, Minnesota and the federal government.
However, uncertainty about the financing for many passenger rail projects could grow because of rising concern about federal and state deficits. And the surprising defeat this month of James Oberstar, Minnesota’s 18-term Democratic congressman, won’t help.
Oberstar, who headed the House Transportation Committee, was an influential champion of passenger rail projects. Now, with Republicans about to take control of the House, that committee chairmanship is likely to go to Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican expected to look more skeptically on passenger rail projects than did Oberstar.
Rail agency swamped
Another problem has surfaced at the Federal Railroad Administration, which is working with the states to oversee the stimulus grants and must sign off on plans for the routes.
At the annual meeting of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition in Baldwin, Wis. early this fall, Christianson said the railroad administration lacked the staff to deal with passenger rail projects when the stimulus grants were announced. Thus it had to pull in several dozen staffers from other agencies. That process has contributed to a delay of about a year in approving plans for the Madison area-Twin Cities route, he said.
Christianson remains a strong believer in the Twin Cities-Chicago high-speed project, which could still be up and running by 2016 if somehow its many challenges get resolved. He cites studies showing that the service could attract up to 2.4 million riders annually and pay its own way two years after it begins operating.
And despite all the problems, rail advocates like Scott Rogers argue that high-speed rail linking the Twin Cities and Chicago is inevitable, sooner or later. They envision demand for the service growing, thanks to ever-higher gas prices, soaring costs of highway construction, greater road congestion, more younger Americans turning off on driving, and less pollution from trains than from other modes of transportation.
“We don’t see any way that this corridor is not going to be successful,” says Christianson.
Rush Loving Jr., a retired Fortune magazine editor who has followed passenger rail controversies for years, says that many of today’s budget-squeezed governors may not be in a mood to spend more for new projects when they have to fix up old ones.
“Wisconsin is probably a good example,” Loving says. “It’s going to get worse as all governments look for cuts. The fiscal crisis we’re in makes short-term fixes very attractive, but it’s probably short-sighted because long-term, money spent for rail is well-spent.”
Dave Beal writes about business and the economy. He can be reached at dandcbeal (at) msn (dot) com.