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While politicians, tech business leaders and transportation wonks are giddy over the prospect of “high speed” rail between Milwaukee and Madison, the public is losing faith in the project according to the latest poll numbers.

In a telephone poll of 386 Metro Milwaukee residents only 41% supported high-speed rail. A similar poll last fall showed support for high-speed rail at 57%.  The People Speak Poll, sponsored by the Public Policy Forum, was conducted in early June.

Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken said the poll shows the progress being made by rail opponents and the public’s concern about the economy and strained government budgets.

Part of the problem could be all we know about the train is that it will be “high speed,” it will have approximately 1.17 million riders in its first year and it will stop at the state office building in Madison. But what is really happening? Where is the money going and more importantly, where has it gone?

DOT project managers Jim Oimoen and Paul Trombino updated business leaders and the public about the $822 million project at a forum last week sponsored by the Wisconsin Innovation Network. They explained the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative will eventually connect major metropolitan areas, radiating out of Chicago, allowing high speed travel for business and pleasure.

“We are focusing on the Chicago to Minneapolis,” Trombino said. “The Milwaukee to Madison is just a link but it is great that it connects our major cities.”

This project has been in the works since 1993 with federal and multi-state studies. However, it didn’t really get going until the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds were awarded to the state in 2009 for the line. Since then, things have been moving at a high-speed clip.

A capacity study has been completed and two train sets were purchased from Talgo. More cars have been added to the Hiawatha line, along with track improvements and the construction of the Intermodal, Mitchell International and Sturtevant stations to meet increasing demand and build up a market for the Milwaukee-Madison line.

This past October the designs for stations in Brookfield, Oconomowoc, Watertown and Madison began and orders for new tracks that can withstand speeds up to 110 mph were placed.

Oimoen said the train will begin running by 2013, so the major construction will have to begin this fall.  When complete there will be six round trips between Milwaukee and Madison and speeds will reach 79 mph. He admitted that is well below the 110 mph promised, but the speeds will increase when the remainder of the line to Minneapolis opens and express lines start running.

Overall, between close to $100 million has already been spent or earmarked for the train. Oimoen predicted the annual operating costs for the route will equal $7.5 million annually.

But what about the 600-pound elephant in the room – the 2010 gubernatorial election, where candidate Scott Walker has pledged to abruptly end the train program if elected. What will happen to the investment that has already been made?

Trombino said robust debate is expected and can lead to improvements in the plan, but there are risks to stopping now that things are underway. He implied that even if Walker wins and stops the project, the feds could step in and order it completed since it is a key part of President Obama’s transportation plan.

Teresa Esser, principal of Capital Midwest Fund, pointed out that the “high-speed” moniker is a misnomer. She said most high-speed trains in Europe and Asia travel at speeds closer to 160 to 225 mph, and the envisioned 110 mph and actual 79 mph between Milwaukee and Madison is far from that. She added the economic benefit of a train traveling at lower speeds will not make it worthwhile for commuters to park their cars and buy a ticket to ride.

But if the train did get to higher speeds or commuters were sold on the ability to do work, use computers or even nap while traveling it will make the train a viable alternative. Also, she sees the economic benefits to be huge by connecting the major cities in the region for a low price.

“It will get people here faster and it will get their money here faster,” she added.

State Sen. Ted Kanavas said he supports high-speed rail, but this proposed line doesn’t meet the mark.

“This is Amtrak, not high-speed rail,” he said. “Amtrak is good between Milwaukee and Madison due to the traffic and parking issues, but do we need it for trips to Madison?”

He also expressed concern that state taxpayers would have $7.5 million in operating costs if the lines are completed and the economic development will be limited to a few new restaurants around stations.

“Ultimately, Wisconsin taxpayers are going to be on the hook for a lot of money,” He said.

It was an interesting argument, until Kanavas said this project had never been discussed in the state legislature (the Joint Finance Committee discussed it) and this forum was the first time he had heard any details about it.

You have to wonder where he’s been the last 10 years while representing Brookfield or what rail line he was opposing when speaking to various media outlets since 2008.

So do you think the Milwaukee to Madison rail project will happen?  Are the citizens really concerned about the cost or fatigued from the arguments?  And will Walker really follow through on his threat to shut it down if elected?  Weigh in below.

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