Without aid, Hiawatha is in a pinch

Monday, May 16, 2011

From an article by Larry Sandler in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Wisconsin scrambles to replace federal money

After being turned down for federal high-speed rail funds, state officials are now pondering how to pay for millions of dollars of work needed to keep the existing Amtrak service running between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Last week, the federal government rejected the state's request for more than $150 million for new locomotives, passenger cars and a maintenance base to upgrade the Hiawatha line. Also rejected was a bid for nearly $60 million in related track, signal and engineering work.

That decision followed Gov. Scott Walker's refusal to build a 110-mph extension of the Hiawatha to Madison, as part of a larger plan to connect Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwestern destinations. After Walker's election, the federal government pulled nearly all of the $810 million stimulus grant that would have paid for the long-planned Milwaukee-to-Madison stretch.

But Walker supported keeping and upgrading the existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago service, with backing from the Milwaukee-area business community. And since some of the $810 million would have been used to improve existing service, the state asked for $213.3 million for that purpose.

Now, after the federal rejection, the state is faced with at least $209.1 million in potential costs for the existing service. But only $69.5 million in state and federal funds has been committed to those expenses, leaving a gap of $139.6 million.

Some of that gap could be filled by borrowing. From 1993 to 2009, lawmakers approved $122 million in borrowing power for passenger rail projects. To date, state officials have used $49.5 million of that authority, leaving $72.5 million available.

Transportation officials have asked the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee for permission to use some of that bonding power. But even if they could use all of it, they would still come up more than $67 million short.