Friday, November 5, 2010

Stopping the train: bluff, political maneuver or reality?

This is a rapidly evolving story, so by the time I finishing typing, things may have changed, but here's what we know so far.

Yesterday, Wisconsin DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi asked contractors on the Madison-Milwaukee extension of the successful Hiawatha service to stop work. Those of us in favor of jobs for Wisconsin, alternative to driving, more environmentally sane transportation options, and just fans of rail were horrified. There wasn't much information at first, but then little bits and pieces of further information emerged.


Later news stories clarified that the suspension was "for a few days" and that they wanted to assess the "real world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped." This sounded like maybe those in favor of the train wanted to collect some ammunition to show that stopping the project would mean loss of jobs, legal problems with the federal government and local contractors, and lost opportunities to connect with the rest of the Midwest. 


(Personally, I'm wondering what the folks up in MN think about all this. If the link between Milwaukee and Madison is stopped, the train can't then be extended to the Twin Cities. Yes, they could go through Iowa, as the Chicago-Quad Cities-Iowa City rail project seems to be progressing, but that would be a much longer trip, and would miss the connection between Madison and the Twin Cities, a very important business link, as well as the link between two powerhouse research centers and universities. Indeed, although each city wants the train connection on the way to the Twin Cities, city officials in both Eau Claire and La Crosse are in agreement that the first step is to make sure the Madison-Milwaukee piece gets built.)


So back to this suspension of work on the already-funded rail line. Many of us are hoping that all this is a strategy to give Walker a way to back out of his campaign rhetoric to stop the train. Maybe Doyle is secretly preparing information that he will let Walker release, showing that the cost of the operations are not what opponents had thought: The federal government has picked up 90% of the operating cost on the existing Hiawatha line, and if that same arrangement were to extend to the Madison-Milwaukee portion, the operating expenses would only be $750,000/yr, not $7.5 million. 


And then there are the jobs that would be lost. Walker pledged to create jobs, but it looks like his first move is putting people out of work. The workers about to start work on the land bridges in Jefferson County were essentially told to go home. From the Wisconsin State Journal today:

Nine companies affected
Officials with DOT said nine companies were affected by the stoppage, including Edward Kraemer & Sons, Kapur & Associates Consulting Engineers, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, Daar Engineering and Amtrak.
Neither DOT nor the Doyle administration would release details Thursday on the size of the contracts or the number of jobs affected, but the State Journal was able to confirm at least two contracts were worth more than $30 million combined.
Officials with Edward Kraemer & Sons, the contractor handling grading, excavation and bridge construction of a two-mile stretch in Jefferson County, received an e-mail Wednesday telling them to begin work on the $28.5 million project. Three hours later they received an e-mail rescinding the order.
Meanwhile, Talgo, the Spanish train manufacturer that opened a plant in Milwaukee in anticipation of providing trains to Wisconsin, but also has contacts with the Oregon DOT, say it cannot guarantee it will remain in Milwaukee if the Wisconsin rail work does not go forward.  That's 40 jobs right now, and an anticipated 125 in the heart of Milwaukee, a city that desperately needs jobs.

Walker think that he can divert the $810 million from the federal government to road projects in the state. That is unlikely to happen. More likely is that the funds will simply go to another state to build a rail system to serve another area of the country. Even John Mica (R-FL), the incoming head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, approves of the idea of high speed rail, but wants to concentrate the funding into fewer projects, possibly in the Northeast Corridor or his own state of Florida, instead of the currently handful of projects around the country. So Wisconsin will simply lose the money.

And finally, I can't let the election season and this topic die without linking to Jim Rowan's rather rambling, but I am sure completely accurate post, showing that Walker's statement that there is precedent for moving rail money to roads is "Pants on Fire."

So, does this temporary stoppage really mean a permanent end to the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative in Wisconsin? That is certainly still up in the air, but many of us are hoping that this "few days" will really turn out to be just that, and that Walker will find a way to back away from his election ploys and "discover" a way to allow the project to continue, perhaps by announcing an "agreement" on operating expenses. That would be, announcing that he's managed to do something that was probably going to happen anyway.

To be continued.

Edit: I missed this good article from yesterday's Milw. J-S that lays out some of the implications of derailing the train [hehe] and reaction from the Federal Railroad Administration, Milw. Mayor Tom Barrett, and some of the state and federal hurdles to stopping the project now.

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