Feds turn Walker down on passenger rail funding request

May 9, 2011
Mike Ivey
Hiawatha Train Logo


Wisconsin has been shut out on the latest round of federal passenger rail funding. As a result, Gov. Scott Walker will not get $150 million to upgrade the Milwaukee to Chicago Amtrak line.

U.S. transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday announced some $2 bilion in high-speed rail funding that had been earlier rejected by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The largest recipients include the Northeast at $795 million, the Midwest ($672 million) and California ($300 million). Among the projects getting funding are upgrades to provide 110 mph service from Chicago to Detroit.

Walker last month had applied for $150 million in high-speed rail funding for upgrades to the Milwaukee to Chicago Hiawatha Amtrak rail line.But that request came after Walker — following up on a campaign pledge — had already rejected $810 million the feds allocated last year to establish a Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line.

Walker maintained the state could not afford the operating costs for the Madison-Milwaukee service. Those annual costs were estimated at $7.5 million but could have been reduced under a federal cost savings plan.

Walker has expressed support for the Hiawatha line because he says it serves a proven market. The line showed a 6.1 percent increase in passengers last year to 783,060 riders.

Included in planned upgrades to the Hiawatha line were a new train maintenance facility in Milwaukee plus two additional train sets and eight locomotives.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said "we are disappointed that Wisconsin's proven Amtrak Hiawatha passenger rail service wasn't included in the latest announcement of federal rail funding. This rail service plays a vital role in our transportation system and the application for funding would have bolstered the existing system, the Midwest's infrastructure network and our economy as a whole."

Twenty-four states submitted nearly 100 applications for high-speed rail funds, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. While not mentioning Wisconsin specifically, LaHood said during a news conference Monday that the feds wanted to work with states that had shown support for expanded rail service.

La Hood noted that workers are already laying 96 miles of high-speed rail track on the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor.

"These projects will put thousands of Americans to work, save hundreds of thousands of hours for American travelers every year, and boost U.S. manufacturing by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in next-generation, American-made locomotives and railcars," La Hood said in a statement.

The full press release is here.

State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, was quick to make note of the lost opportunity.

"This announcement shows all our neighbors get federal train help but Wisconsin," he says. "Gov Walker's war on transportation choices pays off for our neighbors while our outdated train lines don't get the upgrades they need."

Werwie says it's unclear what the state will do next.

"Moving forward the administration will continue to look for cost effective ways to improve Wisconsin's existing infrastructure network, expand where feasible, and maintain what we already have," he says.

But Steve Hiniker of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin told the Daily Reporter it was a dark day for Wisconsin -- although not a surprising development given Walker's initial opposition to an expansion of rail service.