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Wisconsin reconsiders on high-speed rail

Under pressure from rail supporters in Wisconsin – including business leaders and newspapers that endorsed his gubernatorial candidacy – Governor-elect Scott Walker has backed off his opposition to investing in rail.

Walker made opposition to a high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee (connecting to Chicago) a centerpiece of his campaign, demanding the $810 million in federal stimulus funds be used for roads instead.

But with an upsurge of support for the rail project — and in the face of insistence by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that a diversion to road building wasn’t an option — Walker now says he’s open to spending the money on existing rail lines in Wisconsin.

One option he’s proposing is upgrading the Hiawatha line from Milwaukee to Chicago to handle speeds of 110 mph, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  It’s not clear if such a shift will be acceptable to the U.S. Department of Transportation, however.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has offered to spend the stimulus funds here, but high-speed rail proponents are still pushing for the Milwaukee-Madison line, said Dan Johnson-Weinberger of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “It’s the best thing for Chicago, it’s the best thing for Illinois, it’s the best thing for everybody,” he said.  “Madison needs Amtrak service.”

He said there’s been an “explosion of grassroots energy and enthusiasm” in favor of the project, with events planned around the state for a November 20 Day of Action.

And he noted that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which endorsed Walker in this month’s election, just issued a strong editorial backing the high-speed project.

“I think there’s a decent chance that all this pushback will push Scott Walker not to make a terrible mistake,” Johnson-Weinberger said.

Walker opposed the new rail line saying the state couldn’t afford $7 million a year in operating costs.  It’s likely the federal government would cover 90 percent of that, as it does for the Hiawatha line, however.

Campaign donations from road builders favored Walker over his November opponent by a nearly 10-to-1 margin.

But after campaigning on a promise to add 1,000 jobs a week to Wisconsin’s economy, Walker’s been hurt by talk by owners of a new rail car plant about moving to rail-friendly Illinois.

In today’s Tribune, Dennis Byrne applauds Walker’s [previous] stance, citing a Congressional Research Service report (pdf) that questioned ridership projections underpinning claims of economic and environmental benefits of high-speed rail.

“It comes down to whether people in Minneapolis are somehow different from people in Bavaria or Kyoto,” said Johnson-Weinberger.  High-speed rail would be cheaper, faster, cleaner, and more accessible than air or auto travel.

And lowball ridership projections overlook the prospect of rising gas prices in the years to come, he said.

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Category: transportation

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