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Nov 082010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Last week, Ohio and Wisconsin elected new governors who campaigned to clamp down on federal spending, including ending high speed rail projects already queued up with stimulus money in their states.

A Talgo train

The ripping sound could be heard across the Rust Belt. In Wisconsin sitting Gov. Jim Doyle, a supporter of high speed rail, called a temporary halt to the project, throwing into question 400 construction jobs and the promise of perhaps ten times as many later on.

Across the Great Lakes, in New York, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo quickly raised his hand for the $823 million in federal train funds that could become available if Wisconsin spurns its fully paid-for project.

“High speed rail could be the 21st Century Erie Canal for New York State and help rebuild Upstate New York’s economy. Now is the moment to build,” Cuomo declared in a letter to U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, asking for consideration.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker, a Republican who ran on a no-spend platform that exhorted “People create jobs, not government”, vowed to hold his ground and let high-speed rail fly off the tracks, unraveling a network that would have linked Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis with passenger rail fast enough to compete with regional air service.

In addition to the loss of construction jobs to lay track from Milwaukee to Madison, the end of high speed rail in the state also could chase off Talgo, the Spanish company that had set up shop in Milwaukee to build trains for the Chicago-Milwaukee and Milwaukee-Madison legs of the new rail service. Walker, though, grew concerned about that development, and reached out to the company, according to local news accounts.

Today, Doyle, whose actions had puzzled some who wanted him to speed forward with the project while he’s still in office, issued a statement explaining why he’d paused the project, which is was funded with $823 million in federal stimulus money — about 10 percent of the $8 billion designated for high speed rail projects across the U.S.

Even though Wisconsin had fought long and hard with neighboring states to knit together the upper Midwest with a nine-state high speed rail service, involving trains that could go up to 220 mph, it wouldn’t work in Wisconsin unless the state and the federal Department of Transportation were on the same page, Doyle said.

“To me, it doesn’t make sense to not move ahead (with high speed rail), but we have had an election. There has been a lot of politics played with this issue, but I have to deal in the real world and think about how this affects real jobs and the real lives of people in Wisconsin.” Doyle said in a statement.

“There are real consequences for not going forward,” he added, citing the loss of jobs and the loss of federal money to make passenger rail improvements in Wisconsin.

“Over $14 million in expenses incurred over the last six months will need to be paid for by Wisconsin taxpayers,” if the project is permanently stopped. “Necessary upgrades to the existing Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago totaling $82 million will no longer be eligible for federal assistance, shifting costs from the federal government to the state. These include $18 million in platform renovations at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station necessary to bring the platform into compliance with federal safety regulations; $12 million for platform renovations at the Milwaukee Airport Station and other important improvements to the existing Hiawatha line; and $52 million for a facility to maintain new Hiawatha train sets.”

Doyle aimed to defuse the idea lofted by Walker that the rail money could be converted to highway projects, calling that “pure fiction.”

The U.S. DOT, he predicted, would likely soon “reach out to Governor-elect Walker about the project so that he fully understands these consequences. There has been talk that this money could be used for roads. That is pure fiction. There are already states lined up with rail projects waiting for us to turn back this money. If the Governor-elect decides that Wisconsin should not build new rail infrastructure, the U.S. DOT has made it very clear this money will go to another state.”

Doyle might not be playing “brinksmanship” but he does appear to be handing Walker the train wreck in advance of the swearing in.

Also left with the wreckage will be the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, based in Chicago, which would be the hub of the envisioned Midwest train network.

That network will still be able to build a proposed, stimulus-funded leg to St. Louis; but it may no longer be able to loop in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis.

“Every spoke on the network, helps every other, so it is critical to have a region wide system,” said Richard Harnish, director of the non-profit MHSRA. “That’s also true at the economic level…Madison would be more isolated as gas goes up (without the option of high speed passenger rail service).

Ohio, where high speed rail was set to link Cinncinati, Columbus and Cleveland, also will become disengaged from the high speed network. On Monday, Republican Gov.-elect John Kasich asked Gov. Ted Strickland, whom he defeated, to stop the project and to cancel pending train contracts. Kasich wants to use the money for other projects, but failing that, he said it should be applied to the federal deficit.

Harnish says the pull back on high speed rail, which has a lower carbon footprint than automobile travel and planes, comes at a strange time, given recent announcements that there’s less oil available in Alaska than previously thought and that oil prices are project to rise in 2012.

The view that America should concentrate on building roads is wrong-headed because roads are even more heavily subsidized than trains, he said in an interview today. They are paid for with gas taxes while direct subsidies that cover 60 percent of their cost.

Comparing roads to trains, which require subsidies but also are supported by ticket sales, “is based on the complete fantasy that highways pay for themselves,” Harnish said.

  • The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has set up a new website StandUpForTrains.org for train passengers and would-be passengers who want to speak to their elected officials about keeping plans for high speed rail alive.

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