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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rail ideas await their fate in Milwaukee

Three stalled plans for Wisconsin train travel get reanalyzed in the election year

From an article by Larry Sandler in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Railroads and politics have one thing in common: They're all about the timing.

Trains run by schedules. Politicians wait for the right moment to make their moves.

And timing is everything for rail transportation in southern Wisconsin, where political circumstances have brought three different rail transit plans to the forefront simultaneously - only to thrust them into an election-year controversy where some plans may not survive.

After years of study and debate, the state has landed an $810 million federal grant to build a high-speed train line from Milwaukee to Madison. At the same time, Milwaukee-area authorities are seeking federal permission to start preliminary engineering on a $283.5 million commuter rail line from Milwaukee to Kenosha and a $95.8 million modern streetcar line in downtown Milwaukee, two other long-discussed ideas.

Officially, the three plans are not related, except that all three systems would converge at Milwaukee's downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station, where the streetcar could carry Amtrak or KRM Commuter Link passengers "the last mile" to their destinations, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. Supporters also tout all three as ways to stimulate economic development and improve mobility.

Politically, all three are linked in the minds of their opponents, as symbols of unnecessary taxation and skewed transportation spending priorities, say Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine). Walker, Vos and their allies oppose new sales taxes - which are not currently proposed for any of the rail lines - and want transportation dollars spent on roads and buses.

Although the high-speed rail planning started under former Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a longtime passenger train booster, the train debate in recent years has turned partisan, pitting Democratic rail backers against GOP critics. Now the rail projects have emerged as an issue in the fall governor's race - in which Barrett is the likely Democratic nominee and Walker is facing former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann for the GOP nod.

Walker has taken the hardest line against all three projects, vowing to kill the high-speed train project if he's elected. He has long argued against the streetcar line and recently came out against the KRM, a project he had not vocally opposed before.

Neumann, meanwhile, has said he would analyze the costs and benefits of the high-speed train, but would end work on it if "we find this thing is going to be an economic boondoggle for the people of this state." He says he would apply the same approach to state aid for the KRM and the streetcar line.

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