Feds will pull, redistribute state’s high-speed rail money

Below is a link to the article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding the USDOT’s recent announcement. Note that it now appears that the Milwaukee-Twin Cities route study being lead by MnDOT will continue to move forward.

By Larry Sandler of the Journal Sentinel
December 9, 2010

Wisconsin can keep only a fraction of the $810 million it won in federal high-speed rail money, while the rest will help fund train lines in California, Florida, Illinois and other states, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Thursday.

Governor-elect Scott Walker had vowed to kill the planned 110-mph Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger train route that was to be funded with Wisconsin’s share of $8 billion in federal stimulus dollars. Ohio Governor-elect John Kasich had issued a similar promise for a planned 79-mph line connecting his state’s three largest cities, funded by $400 million in stimulus cash.

Now, almost all of the $1.2 billion from the two projects will be divided among other states. California is the big winner, with up to $624 million, followed by Florida, up to $342.3 million; Washington, up to $161.5 million; and Illinois, up to $42.3 million. Smaller amounts will go to New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Missouri, Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa and Indiana.

The announcement from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held out some hope that Wisconsin may not be on the hook for all of the $9 million or so it has already spent on the project, plus another $5.25 million in cancellation fees and other contractual commitments. Ohio was allowed to keep $15 million that had been committed for preliminary work, and federal rail officials “will work with these states to determine whether they have already spent money under their contracts that should be reimbursed,” the announcement said.

Walker said he talked with LaHood on Thursday morning and was assured that Wisconsin would not have to repay money already spent.

Wisconsin also was allowed to retain up to $2 million to fund upgrades on Amtrak’s existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line. But that won’t cover the $19.4 million cost of renovating the train shed at Milwaukee’s downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station or the $52 million cost of building a new maintenance base for two newly purchased trains, two projects that would have been included in the original $810 million budget.

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle had suggested Walker’s stand also would jeopardize a separate $12 million grant for upgrades to a Hiawatha crossing and the Mitchell International Airport station platform, but the federal announcement made no mention of withdrawing that money.

In a meeting with reporters in Pewaukee, Walker called the decision a “victory” because he sees the rail line as a symbol of excessive government spending.

“That’s the decision they’ve made and we’re going to move forward,” Walker said.

Even with the federal government paying all construction costs, Walker has said he didn’t want state taxpayers to bear any of the operating costs. The state initially estimated those costs at $7.5 million a year, after subtracting fare revenue, but revised ridership estimates could have cut taxpayers’ share by $2.8 million. The state also could have used part of its federal highway funds to cover 80% to 90% of the taxpayer share.

The Milwaukee-to-Madison line would have been an extension of the Hiawatha. It eventually could have been extended to the Twin Cities, as part of a Midwestern network of fast, frequent trains.

It was not immediately clear how Thursday’s announcement would affect a separate study, led by Minnesota, of how to connect Milwaukee and the Twin Cities by high-speed rail. Most of the 14 options under review in that study run through Madison, although one follows the current route of Amtrak’s long-distance Empire Builder and two others run through Fond du Lac, Neenah and Stevens Point.

Click here for the text of the USDOT announcement.

Click here to read the full Journal Sentinel article.


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