Departing rail money puts freight line in a pinch

Monday, December 20, 2010

From an article in Joe Lunane in The Daily Reporter:

The state and some Wisconsin counties are stuck with the $35 million tab to upgrade a freight line between Madison and Watertown now that federal high-speed train money is gone.

“The state had been waiting nearly a decade for federal money to come to Wisconsin to upgrade this freight line,” said Ken Lucht, manager of community development for Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., the state-contracted operator of the 33-mile track. “But because it is being redirected to other parts of the country, it’s pretty clear now the state is going to have to rebuild it themselves.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Dec. 9 redirected nearly all of Wisconsin’s $810 million in high-speed rail money to 13 other states. That pushed any potential rail upgrades back at least five years, Lucht said, and requires his company apply for a grant from the state’s rail preservation program.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation grant would cover 80 percent of the upgrade price, while the remaining costs for such projects typically would be divided between Wisconsin & Southern and the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission.

The commission represents eight southern Wisconsin counties that pool money to pay for local rail projects. Each county chips in $27,100 for a total of $216,800 per year — far less than the anticipated $3.5 million needed to cover the commission’s required 10 percent for the freight line.

The commission spends all of the money each year.

Van Schwartz, Dane County transit rail commissioner and finance committee chairman, said the commission recently has been unable to match its 10 percent local contribution, forcing Wisconsin & Southern to make up the shortfall for other projects.

“There’s no question work on this rail line needs to be done,” he said. “It’s valuable and will lead to additional jobs and traffic. But the economic reality is that counties don’t have the money to fund schools or roads, let alone any other activities.”