Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Gov. Jim Doyle sign an agreement releasing $46.5 million in high-speed rail funds to Wisconsin. Photo by Patti Wenzel

At an appearance in Watertown July 29th, U.S. Transportation SecretaryRayLaHood made it clear that the Milwaukee to Madison high-speed trainis a fait accompli.

LaHood was in Watertown for the ceremonial signing of papers releasing $46.5 million of the total $822 million in high-speed rail funds awarded to the state. He was joined by Gov. Jim Doyle, Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who expressed gratitude to LaHood and President Obama for making the train a reality in their communities.

LaHood said that high-speed rail is a national initiative, Obama’s vision to connect the major economic centers of the nation by rail, just as President Eisenhower envisioned connecting the nation via the Interstate Highway System.

That was a “vast system of interconnected highways criss-crossing the nation. It has moved products of industry to market, linked affordable homes to quality jobs. But the interstate didn’t start out that way, it started as a bold, daring idea.”

“Obama is working to achieve a vision of similar scope and detail as the Interstate,” LaHood said. “We’re going to transform travel in America with historic investment in interstate rail. Within the next 25 years, 80 percent of America will be connected with high-speed intercity rail, and that is a grand achievement.”

While we know much of the who, what, where and when, reporter questions focused on the “what if?” – as in “What if a Republican takes over Gov. Doyle’s office?” or “What if the legislature changes parties?” or “What if Senator Feingold is defeated?” What will happen to the high-speed train when candidates who have vowed to kill the project take office?

LaHood reiterated that high-speed rail is a national project and that it will withstand changes in governors, legislators and even presidents. He described the rail program as something the citizens of Wisconsin and America want and that this administration is making the investment to create a program that will continue well beyond elections.

“Wisconsin is getting high-speed rail, you can’t stop it.” LaHood added

Doyle shared LaHood’s sentiments saying the train is on the fast track.

“It is unthinkable that a governor would come in and stop the thousands of people at work on this. That they would say ‘Okay, take off the hardhats and go home.’ It’s not going to happen. This is happening, people can like it or not, but this is the secretary’s call, not the next governor of Wisconsin.”

Both LaHood and Doyle extolled the economic benefits of the train, the potential to connect Milwaukee and Madison to other industrial, technological and idea centers in the Midwest and nation and the immediate construction jobs of erecting bridges, laying new track and building the trains.

Both also said the worry over the future operating costs for the train is premature and overblown. LaHood said that once the infrastructure is in place and service is running, the federal government will look at assisting states with those costs. It could be in the form of outright aid or in legislative changes that would allow a percentage of capital funds to be used for operations, similar to recent changes made to federal bus transit funds.

Doyle said the current agreement with Amtrak for the Hiawatha trains to Chicago spread the cost between Amtrak, the state and passenger fares.

The cost of the Milwaukee to Chicago line is only 1 percent of our (state) transportation budget and I don’t see the Milwaukee to Madison line costing more than 1 percent of that budget either.”

While LaHood, Doyle and the other officials were thrilled with the prospect of high-speed rail running through the state, three Watertown businessmen stood in the back of the room and shared their skepticism for the project.

Dan (who asked for his last name to be withheld) would like to see the entire project scrapped, not just in Wisconsin, but across the nation. He said the taxes to support this will put him out of business, bankrupt his grandchildren and turn America into Europe.

“We don’t want to be Europe. Europe is failing and if we do this, America will fail right along with them,” Dan said.

Trevor Price lives on a street that will be closed when the tracks are laid for the project. He thinks the estimates of ridership are overblown and don’t take into account the economic realities that commuters consider. He figured a round trip ticket at $30 from Watertown to Milwaukee five days a week for 50 weeks a year will cost a commuter $7,500 annually. Contrast that with a commuter driving their 25 mpg car 100 miles round trip to Milwaukee the same number of days. Price figured that would cost $2,750 if gas costs $2.75 a gallon.

“It’s just not fiscally responsible,” Price said, adding that businessmen will not want to ride the train and waste hours doing nothing.

LaHood would counter Price’s concerns by reminding him that Milwaukee to Watertown is only a segment in a much larger vision – a vision to connect the nation by rail and create economic corridors that will not be stopped.

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