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Wisconsin lawmakers OK no-bid, $47M rail contract

(The Associated Press circulated the following on August 4, 2009.)

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin lawmakers on Tuesday approved a $47 million no-bid contract to buy two passenger trains from a Spanish company under a plan to jump-start high-speed rail service in the state.

The Joint Finance Committee voted 11-4 to approve the agreement with Patentes Talgo even as lawmakers criticized Gov. Jim Doyle's aides for the process they used to pick the company and not informing them for months after a tentative deal was reached.

The vote allows the administration to execute a contract that will bring scores of jobs to Wisconsin and improve the state's chances of winning federal stimulus money for high-speed rail. It is the first step in a $600 million plan to improve train service between Chicago and Milwaukee and add a high-speed connection to Madison.

Doyle, a Democrat, traveled to Spain to visit Talgo executives in February and then announced the agreement last month. His administration picked Talgo under a law that allows passenger rail cars to be purchased without competitive bidding. It was the only company out of seven contacted to respond to a state request for information.

"The only company that has really taken our state seriously is Talgo," state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi told lawmakers.

Republicans on the committee conceded the no-bid contract was allowed, but said taxpayers will never know whether they could have gotten a better deal.

"I cannot imagine a better definition in the state of Wisconsin for a sweetheart deal than the one you are representing to us today," said Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine.

Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Mark Pocan lashed out at Doyle's aides for reaching a "letter of intent" to enter into contract negotiations with Talgo on May 11 but not informing lawmakers until July 17.

"I think the purchase is fine," said Pocan, D-Madison. "I have a terrible problem with the process."

Nonetheless, he and Democrats who control the committee voted for the deal.

The state is buying two sets of passenger trains and related equipment to replace aging, dark and overcrowded cars on the Amtrak Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee. The new rail cars would accommodate more riders, be more fuel-efficient and provide more amenities than the Amtrak coaches, many of which are more than 40 years old.

Talgo will build an assembly plant in Wisconsin to build those trains within two years and potentially others bought by Wisconsin, other states and Amtrak, creating at least 55 jobs. A separate maintenance facility would employ another 25 workers.

The company has said the assembly plant could become a hub for the Midwest, where Wisconsin and other states are promoting a regional rail system. Janesville and Milwaukee are among the cities vying for the Talgo facility.

Wisconsin is expected to apply in coming weeks for up to $550 million in stimulus money to increase the number of daily round trips between Chicago and Milwaukee to 10 — seven round trips operate now — and clear the way for high-speed service to Madison. The money would be used to improve tracks and signals, build stations, and buy additional train equipment, including two more train sets from Talgo.

The use of state money for the Talgo deal could strengthen Wisconsin's bid. The Federal Railroad Administration says it will favor projects that include nonfederal investments when doling out $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail.

Wisconsin officials say rail work could begin as early as December and last three years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

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