WATCH: Story on high-speed rail in Wisconsin

July 24, 2009

Picture 3Click to watch Wisconsin Public Television, a partner with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism,  explore the state’s plan for high-speed passenger rail, following an investigation on the topic earlier this week by the Center. The news story appeared tonight during the weekly broadcast of “Here and Now.”

Questions remain as state pushes ahead with rail line

July 21, 2009

radio imageListen to Wisconsin Public Radio coverage of “Is State Ready for Rail?”

The Center has published a correction to this story. This version has been updated to include the corrected information.

By Lexie Clinton
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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

Nobody 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 to land federal stimulus money.DOYLEpressconf

“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 last week 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.”

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. Wisconsin 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 state Department of Transportation 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 beween 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, proves the state is ready for more. “Wisconsin doesn’t need to prove we want to ride trains,” Klein said. “We already have.”

map-finalBut 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 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.” Read what communities say
  • Critics question the viability of the planned stop at the Madison airport, which is nearly six miles from the city’s major destinations. Klein said bringing the train downtown would add half an hour to the trip, which would be “extremely undesirable” for passengers not stopping in Madison.
  • Late last month, DOT officials told the Center that the state would request $13.8 million for a downtown Madison rail connection. But officials quickly removed the item from the cost estimates provided to the Center, saying the project wasn’t ready for inclusion — raising questions about how firm the state’s plans for passenger rail are.
  • Other benefits of such projects 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.” Read what experts say on rail
  • 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 new passenger rail service, which would start running around 2013, will take one hour and seven minutes, which DOT officials say shaves an estimated 20 minutes off the driving trip between Wisconsin’s two largest cities when factoring in traffic. One online site that provides driving directions estimates the drive at one hour and 18 minutes.

train-model1The train is expected to travel up to 110 miles per hour by 2015 once the state completes additional safety improvements. Doyle announced last week that Wisconsin will buy $47 million in new high-speed rail cars from Talgo for the existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago line. The company, which agreed to locate manufacturing and maintenance facilities in Wisconsin, would be the vendor for additional train sets if Wisconsin secures federal stimulus funding, the governor said.

‘Like manna from heaven’

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 in stimulus funds for rail. The previous Republican administration showed little enthusiasm for train projects, which primarily are paid for with federal dollars, he said.busalacchi-mug

“The thinking changed overnight with (President Barack) Obama,” the secretary said. “I mean, this $8 billion is like manna from heaven. Nobody was ready for it … None of us (state transportation secretaries) knew it was going to happen.”

Klein said Wisconsin is ahead of most states because it continued to plan for rail even when the federal government wasn’t funding it. He pointed out that the Milwaukee-to-Madison line has been designated by all nine governors in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative as one of the first routes to be built.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog based in Washington, D.C., 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.”

State part of Midwest rail plan

Busalacchi believes the state’s stimulus request will help realize the dream of an expanded nationwide rail network that will make travel faster, cheaper and easier. He also touts the economic benefits of an improved passenger rail system for Wisconsin. A 2006 study estimated that a fully operational Midwestern high-speed rail system would create or save 9,570 jobs in Wisconsin by adding another transit option and creating service sector jobs in the communities with stops. In addition, 3,000 construction jobs would be created over a 10-year period.

18736_midwestrailThose 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 the estimates are based on an entire Midwest train system, not just the new Wisconsin segment. All nine Midwestern states are expected to apply for stimulus funding; Wisconsin plans to submit its proposal in late August.

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.”

A panel of officials from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the U.S. Department of Transportation and outside experts will evaluate states’ funding applications over the remainder of the summer, said Warren Flatau, FRA senior public affairs specialist. The competitive process, Flatau said, will be merit-based, and a final decision by FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo is expected in fall.

About half of the money Wisconsin will request will fund track updates and maintenance. Train cars and equipment are likely to cost about $222 million, and the cost of four stations is budgeted at $16 million. Busalacchi said that the stimulus funds would only be a “down payment” on passenger rail, with the Milwaukee-to-Madison rail line costing state taxpayers about $15 million a year to operate.

The goal of restoring passenger trains linking Wisconsin to major Midwestern cities via high-speed rail has been a desire of state officials for nearly two decades.rail-timeline-7-19

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson served for seven years on the board that runs Amtrak, which provides regular passenger service between St. Paul, Minn., Milwaukee and Chicago but bypasses Madison. Passenger rail service to the capital city ended in 1971.

Busalacchi has spent the past few years traveling the United States promoting rail as part of his duties for the States for Passenger Rail Coalition and the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study, on which he served from 2006 until 2008.

And last month, Doyle met with Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to push for stimulus funds for passenger rail. Doyle said last week he was “very confident” Wisconsin would get federal money, if not this year, “very soon after that.”

Build it. But will they ride?

A top GAO official told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in late June that ridership is a top factor in determining whether a train project is worth the investment. Susan Fleming, the agency’s director of physical infrastructure issues, added that rail projects, which can offer many benefits, also are “costly, take years to develop and build, and require substantial up-front public investment, as well as potentially long-term operating subsidies.”

Some involved in local planning for the high-speed rail line also 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?”

Klein countered that ridership on Amtrak between Milwaukee and Chicago is a good indicator of Wisconsinites’ appetite for rail travel. “We have set ridership records 50 of the past 54 months,” he said.

Last year, about 750,000 travelers rode the Amtrak’s Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago. Busalacchi said Amtrak also would likely operate the new segment.

Figures from the 2000 U.S. Census broken down by county and compiled by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism indicate that while a small number of commuters — about 1,300 — travel the full route between Madison and Milwaukee for work, many more — 132,000 people — live along the proposed line and regularly commute among the counties with proposed stops.

An increasing number of Wisconsin commuters already ride together to work. According to Brian Luther, manager of the state van pool in Madison, waiting lists continue to grow for the vans that transport commuters, mostly state employees, from the Milwaukee area to Madison for a fee. Luther said the state-subsidized service, which runs four, 15-seat vans daily, would like to offer more service but has limited state funding.

“Americans definitely without question want more trains,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

Above: A collection of historic photos showing rail throughout Wisconsin. State officials hope current-day rail would, like the past, create jobs and allow residents to access the greater Midwest region.

— University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students Doug Shore, Royston Sim and Amanda Hoffstrom, and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reporter Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.  Lexie Clinton analyzed the U.S. Census Bureau data.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.

The map of the Midwestern rail route was used with permission. All photos taken by Robert Gutsche Jr./WCIJ.

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