Official: Wisconsin can sit out rail plan; Twin Cities-Chicago line still in works

Monday, March 14, 2011

From an article by Frederick Melo in the Pioneer Press, Minneapolis/St. Paul:

Despite hot competition from other states, Minnesota is well-positioned to nab a chunk of federal funding for passenger rail projects recently rejected by Florida and Wisconsin, according to Dan Krom, a rail guru for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The recent Madison-toMilwaukee rail debacle "doesn't deter any of the work we're doing in terms of getting to Chicago," Krom told an advisory board to the Metropolitan Council on Thursday. About $810 million in federal funds would have gone to build a 70-mile rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, but Gov. Scott Walker rejected it.

Some members appeared incredulous. And once high-speed passenger rail lines are built to Chicago, or Rochester, or Duluth, how will annual operating costs be covered? Fare-box revenues are likely to capture only part of the price tag to keep the trains rolling, and state general funds are unlikely to make up the remainder.

"We have six or seven lines prepared for the state, but we don't have a funding source," said Krom, MnDOT's co-project manager for passenger rail.

Krom gave the group a general overview of the state's rail plans in light of recent developments since the November elections.

For Minnesota, Wisconsin's turn-back presents complications and opportunities. State officials had hoped to build a high-speed rail line from the Twin Cities to Chicago, which would likely have gone through both Madison and Milwaukee, and those passengers would have provided coveted revenue.

But state planners have other visions mapped out for the high-speed Chicago route, Krom said — 14 plans in total. By the summer, MnDOT will likely have those 14 potential corridors narrowed down to one preferred strategy. Amtrak — or another provider, if one were to materialize — could still proceed through Wisconsin. Planning on a Twin Cities-to-Milwaukee route is far enough along to move forward, he said.

"The original plan was to go down to Madison on its way to Milwaukee, but the corridor isn't dependent on that," he said. "It's not a project death knell by any means."