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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Committee OKs federal funding of Milwaukee-Madison rail link

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The Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Finance Committee agreed Feb. 16 to accept $822 million in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail linking Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, but not before lawmakers wrangled over whether the project was necessary, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. The funds had been sought by Gov. Jim Doyle to link the three cities - and potentially the Twin Cities. The vote represents the final action for Wisconsin to tap the stimulus funding for rail.

The vote broke down two ways - lawmakers voted 12-4 for $810 million to build the rail system and 16-0 for improvements on the existing rail line between Milwaukee and Chicago. A separate $1 million federal allocation to study extending the route to Minnesota has been granted to that state.

Plans call for service on the rail line to start by January 2013, with stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown. In the first year, transportation planners expect ridership of 361,400 between Milwaukee and Madison. By comparison, passenger traffic between Milwaukee and Chicago reached 766,167 in 2008.

In the early going, trains would move at speeds of up to 79 miles per hour - something less than what is considered high-speed rail. Then, once new locomotives have been purchased and technology installed that automates rail traffic, the trains will travel at up to 110 mph between Madison and Milwaukee. A trip between the two cities would take an estimated 1 hour, 14 minutes, though officials say times will be shorter for express runs.

Republicans said the money would only exacerbate the federal government's deficit. They also worried that Wisconsin taxpayers will be on the hook to fund the rail line in years to come.

But Democrats said that high-speed rail would help move workers between the state's two largest cities. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), co-chairman of the committee, said the Doyle administration pushed for the service because the business community has said it needs a transit system that includes rail.

The Doyle administration said the project would create about 13,000 jobs - if jobs are added cumulatively during the construction process. Other figures from the administration show that the project will employ a maximum of 4,732 people at the peak in 2012. The estimated number of permanent jobs: 55.

The rail line is sure to become part of the debate in the governor's election, with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, supporting the project and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a Republican, saying the state should have turned down the funds unless the federal government provides more for continuing operations.

Seven trips a day will continue between Milwaukee and Chicago, and six will be extended between Milwaukee and Madison.

In Madison, plans call for the train to stop at the Dane County Regional Airport, but others are pushing for a location closer to downtown. Dane County Board Chairman Scott McDonnell said he would like to see a train station closer to downtown, but he noted that officials have to keep in mind the train will continue on to Minneapolis and cannot go into the heart of the city because of time constraints. The stimulus funding included $810 million for the Milwaukee-to-Madison line and $12 million for upgrades in Kenosha and a longer passenger platform at a rail station at Mitchell International Airport.

The cost of tickets will be set by Amtrak. An assessment by the state and Amtrak has estimated a one-way fare between Milwaukee and Madison at $20 to $33.

The initial operating subsidy would be $7.5 million in 2013. That's in addition to Wisconsin's current contract with Amtrak of $5.5 million.

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