Thursday, November 25, 2010

Milwaukee – Twin Cities corridor open houses

The Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation will be holding open houses discussing the planned 110-mph rail route between Milwaukee and Saint Paul/Minneapolis. They've been working on a $1.2 million study this year along with the Federal Railroad Administration. The meetings will run from November 29th through December 7th and will all be from 5 to 7 p.m.

Monday, Nov. 29, 2010
Saint Paul Union Depot
214 Fourth Street E.
St. Paul, MN 55101

Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010
Best Western Riverfront Hotel
1835 Rose Street
La Crosse, WI 54603

Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010
Best Western Trail Lodge
3340 Mondovi Road
Eau Claire, WI 54701

Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010
University of Wisconsin, Fond du Lac
Fond du Lac, WI

Monday, Dec 6, 2010
Mayo Civic Center
Elliott Suite
30 Civic Center Drive SE
Rochester, MN 55904

Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
WisDOT Southwest Region Office
2101 Wright Street
Madison, WI 53704

Friday, November 19, 2010

Catching up

The most surprising event for me following the November 2nd election was Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle's move to pause work on the Hiawatha Service extension from Milwaukee to Madison and let Scott Walker decide whether the project should continue once he enters office. Doyle had adamantly defended the project all year long, and even signed agreements with the federal government just before the election to commit the state to spending the $810 million allocated toward the project.

To me, the moved smelled of fear. It seemed that Democrats around the country began knuckling under the apparent might of the Republicans. While the election took place on November 2nd, nobody's going to take office until the beginning of January, so I've been a bit baffled why anyone would want to change their behavior at this point.

I partly refrained from writing anything because I want to take the long view. High-speed rail has been examined between Chicago and the Twin Cities for decades. The earliest studies I've been able to find date to 1990/1991, though there's evidence that such a link had been studied even earlier. This map comes from Nova's 1982 episode "Tracking the Supertrains", and clearly shows a Twin Cities link:

Nova "Supertrains" map

We've been waiting 30 years or more for a return to higher speeds in the corridor. I was born in 1978, and I certainly don't our progress to slow further. I am willing to wait a little bit if the Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota Departments of Transportation are interested in building a train that would go significantly faster than 110 mph, or if there are modest technical issues that need brief delays on the order of months. I am not willing to wait for the "next big thing", however—We don't need a maglev, for instance. Trains using existing steel wheel on rail technology works just fine.

Getting back to Governor Doyle, I've thought of several possible reasons why he decided to shut down the rail line extension:
  1. It will (probably) make Scott Walker a hypocrite. This seems to be the most straightforward explanation. Who can turn down $810 million from the federal government? We'll see if Walker can actually follow through on his campaign promises, though I don't have as much faith as Doyle (apparently) does that Walker would succumb to greed.
  2. It's setting up for a legal battle with the feds. If Walker tries to turn down the cash, some sort of legal battle will ensue. If Doyle and his contacts in federal agencies believe there's a strong enough case, they might be getting ready to use the court system to force the line to be built. That's definitely not an avenue I'd go down, though. The courts are not known for their expediency.
  3. It's preventing financial waste. Instead of betting against Walker as in point #1, Doyle may be betting that Walker would succeed in stopping the project. If this is true, Doyle may be trying to protect the money so that others could get it instead. That might be noble, but it just seems to make Doyle and other Democrats look weak in my estimation.
  4. The route to the Twin Cities is waiting in the wings. For most of 2010, Mn/DOT and WisDOT have been studying where to route high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago. I had originally heard they were planning to finish in September, but it might be done until early 2011. With 8 trains per day, this should be a self-sufficient service that would not require an operating subsidy. This might become a point to stick in Scott Walker's face when he enters office.
  5. The time will bring resolutions to technical/political issues. In the weeks and months before the election, there had been a considerable amount of wrangling regarding where stations will go along the line. Cities like Oconomowoc were concerned about the ongoing costs to maintain the station facilities. WisDOT had dropped Oconomowoc as a planned stop due to the city government's dour attitude, though the city was feeling a little seller's remorse afterward and was planning to discuss the issue after the election. Brookfield was in a similar quandry about whether to continue working with WisDOT or not. This delay could allow those cities to more fully discuss plans with the DOT.
I find it pretty amazing that politicians in Wisconsin got so worked up over a train service that will only require an extra $7 million a year to operate, a value which is tiny in comparison to the state's budget to mow grass along its highways. It's a small enough number that the city of Madison could pay some or all of it. Right now, the state is worrying about a $2.2 billion budget deficit (or possibly more). It's reasonable for people to get worried about any program that is going to cost the state money when you look at a number like that, but it requires some context. Wisconsin's yearly state budget is somewhere on the order of $25 billion. The state budget could be fixed by increasing taxes about 10% from current levels. However, the $7 million yearly cost for the rail line would be just 0.03% of the state budget. Clearly there are bigger fish to fry.