High-speed rail draws a line in governor’s race

The proposed $810 million high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison has become perhaps the key issue in the race for governor of Wisconsin.

And each week, new developments related to the project attract more controversy.

The Republican candidates, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and former Congressman Mark Neumann, are using the project as the poster child for wasteful government spending. Both continue to pledge to stop the project if they are elected.

The Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, supports the project and says it is an important infrastructure investment that will create jobs and spur economic development.

The rhetoric intensified after a recent interview by state Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi on “UpFront with Mike Gousha,” on WISN-TV Channel 12, a media partner of BizTimes Milwaukee. Busalacchi told Gousha that the state will have spent $300 million on the high speed rail project by the end of the year. A DOT spokesperson later clarified that the figure accounts for the amount of contracts that the state will have entered into.

The $300 million figure is a significant increase from previous estimates by DOT officials that the state will have spent about $100 million by the time the next governor takes office in January.

The total $810 million cost to build the high-speed rail line will be paid from funds provided by the federal government. However, the state must pay annual operating costs of the line, estimated to be between $7 million and $10 million.

If the state cancels the project, it must return the money it has spent to the federal government and will likely face lawsuits from contractors, DOT officials say.

A Walker campaign aide blasted the DOT’s rush to spend the high-speed rail funds before the election.

“If Governor (Jim) Doyle had any confidence that Tom Barrett would be elected the next governor, they wouldn’t be spending another $200 million beyond earlier estimates of $100 million faster than the federal government can borrow it,” said Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes. “Trying to railroad the people of Wisconsin into paying for this train through runaway spending is outrageous and insulting.”

The DOT also made waves recently when it decided to eliminate a planned high-speed rail stop in Oconomowoc, saying city officials were not interested in it. However, city officials denied that charge, saying they were just asking questions about how the station would impact the city and what it would cost.

In addition, at a recent public meeting, several Brookfield residents blasted plans for a train station in that community. The only other station between Milwaukee and Madison is planned in Watertown.

Another train project that is attracting controversy, but is not directly related to the high-speed rail project, is the DOT’s plans for a new $16 million train shed at the Intermodal Station in Milwaukee. Walker criticized that project, and Barrett expressed support. Milwaukee Ald. Joe Dudzik dubbed it a “garage mahal.”

“Milwaukee has lost millions in tax base to recent flooding and sewer backups, and the city’s beat-up roadways and antiquated sewer system are badly in need of repair,” Dudzik said. “Seriously, you don’t buy a Cadillac when you can’t afford the maintenance on the Volkswagen you’re driving now. The real infrastructure challenges Milwaukee faces deserve our full and undivided attention.”

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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