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Fast track for high speed?

(The following article by Larry Sandler was posted on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website on February 24.)

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. -- After years of being parked on a siding, plans for 110-mph passenger trains in Wisconsin and Illinois could be ready to roll, with the aid of the federal stimulus package.

Rail advocates and state officials are optimistic that Midwestern projects will capture a significant chunk of the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail in the $787 billion legislation, despite heavy competition from other high-speed rail plans across the nation.

And if high-speed rail money does land in the Midwest, itís most likely to be directed at building a new Milwaukee-to-Madison route and at increasing the speed and frequency of Amtrak service from Milwaukee to Chicago and from Chicago to St. Louis, said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Some of those trains could be in service within a few years, Harnish said Tuesday.

Powerful Midwestern Democrats are in a position to help, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. He and others pointed to President Barack Obama, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, all from Illinois, and House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.).

Another boost could come from Chicagoís bid to host the 2016 Olympics, Barrett said. At 110 mph, it would take slightly more than an hour to ride from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee, and another hour or so to reach Madison, putting Milwaukee hotels and Madison cycling venues within easier reach of Olympic fans and athletes.

Underscoring the seriousness of Wisconsinís interest in the issue, Gov. Jim Doyle is in Spain this week to check out high-speed rail there. He is accompanied by Chief of Staff Susan Goodwin, Administration Secretary Michael Morgan, Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel and two security guards. The Spanish government is paying the cost of travel for the four public officials; Wisconsin taxpayers are paying for the security guards.

In a conference call with reporters, Doyle said much of his time would be spent meeting with executives at Talgo, a company that manufactures passenger rail cars. In addition to the stateís interest in buying rail cars for high-speed service, Doyle said the expansion of passenger rail could increase business for Wisconsin manufacturers, particularly Milwaukee-based Super Steel.

For more than a decade, Wisconsin has played a leading role in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a nine-state effort to connect the regionís cities with fast, frequent passenger trains. In addition to Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, routes through Wisconsin would serve Green Bay and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Much of the engineering is completed on the Milwaukee-to-Madison route, which has won environmental approval from federal authorities.

But the plan has stalled while state officials waited for Congress to put up most of the money. Building the entire Midwestern network would cost $7.7 billion in 2002 dollars, and the cost of the Milwaukee-to-Madison route has grown from $318 million in 2002 to more than $500 million, said Ron Adams, rail chief for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The stimulus package, however, could pay up to 100% of project costs, unlike the usual 80%-20% split between federal and state or local aid, Adams said.

Doyleís stimulus wish list included $137 million to upgrade tracks between Milwaukee and Watertown and between Milwaukee and Chicago. Itís possible state officials could seek more, either through the stimulus or through other transportation legislation, said Alan Fish, deputy director of Doyleís stimulus office.

In the short term, the Milwaukee-to-Chicago upgrades could allow Amtrakís Hiawatha line to increase service from seven to eight round trips daily, Doyle has said. Hiawatha ridership shot up 24% last year, to 766,167. The trend continued in January, when ridership rose 10%.

The Milwaukee-Watertown tracks, which already carry Amtrakís long-distance Empire Builder at 79 mph, represent about 40% of the Milwaukee-to-Madison route, Adams said. But the Watertown-to-Madison tracks carry only 10-mph freight trains and need much more work, he said.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

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