Walker seeks federal stimulus funds for Hiawatha upgrades
Scott Walker and Tom Barrett are partnering to improve and expand the Hiawatha train between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Walker made the announcement to seek $150 million from the High Speed Intercity Grant program at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station on Tuesday afternoon.
The money would be used to upgrade rail lines, construct a larger train shed, build a maintenance facility and purchase additional engines and train sets, according to Walker. The funds are potentially available after Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, part of President Obama’s stimulus spending on transportation.
“Upgrading the Hiawatha line will save the state money and improve rail service for Wisconsin customers,” Walker said. “The state will save money immediately on capital costs and in the long-term with lower operating costs. Service improvements will also enable the state to recover more from ticket sales.”
Walker said upgrades to the line could eventually increase the speed of trains from 78 mph to 100 mph – cutting the commute between Chicago and Milwaukee from over 90 minutes down to an hour. He also sees increasing the number of trips the line would make as ridership increases.
The state will partner with Illinois, Missouri, Michigan and Amtrak to submit a joint application to provide funding for two train sets and eight locomotives. The governor was not clear on whether those new trains and engines would be manufactured by Talgo or another train builder.
Walker explained a train shed was already planned at the Intermodal Station by former Gov. Jim Doyle, with $30 million in state funds earmarked for the project. That shed was included in the original plans for the $810 million in federal funds and was not voided when Walker refused the stimulus dollars. The new shed will be larger than originally planned, with a proposed price tag of $60 million. The new grant dollars would fund the shed on a 80/20 split, with the state on the hook for $12 million.
Walker can say he saved the state $18 million if he receives this latest grant.
The mayor was not at the Tuesday press conference, but he expressed his support following the event.
“This is an important step forward toward improving the rail connection between Milwaukee and Chicago. The Hiawatha is a popular route with a growing number of riders, and it provides a valuable economic link between Illinois and Wisconsin,” Barrett said.
The proposed maintenance facility would be built near the current Talgo, Inc. plant. Mayor Barrett said he hoped the Hiawatha deal would keep jobs here in Milwaukee and at Talgo.
Talgo announced plans to reduce its presence in Milwaukee following the loss of the Milwaukee/Madison high-speed rail project.
The money sought by Walker and Barrett now is much less than the $810 million the Governor turned away last November following the election, on grounds that the high-speed rail connection between Milwaukee and Madison would result in $7.5 million from the state in annual maintenance costs. However, the federal government said the upkeep for that rail system would only cost the state $750,000 annually after cost sharing and increased ticket revenues were considered.
Walker said he didn’t see any hypocrisy in his positions concerning the Milwaukee/Madison line and the Hiawatha. He described the Hiawatha as a tested and proven commuter line that needs to be improved and expanded. He repeatedly referred to the Milwaukee/Madison line as speculative on the part of the federal government and a waste of money that could be spent on proven transportation options.
Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman, whose district includes the Intermodal Station, thinks Walker’s snub of the high-speed rail money last year will make any application for Hiawatha funding dead on arrival.
“After the way they they kicked dust in the face of the President of the United States and the Department of Transportation and told us how federal stimulus (is) evil, I think there is zero chance Wisconsin gets a dime,” Bauman said. “This is a big scam. They didn’t release any details on what is being asked for. This will not improve or increase service for at least 3 or 4 years. This is just an opportunity for the Governor to go to his supporters and say ‘Look, I support the right kind of trains.'”
The U.S. Department of Transportation has set an April 4 deadline for states to apply for a share of the Florida money. There is no timeline for when the grants will be awarded or announced.