Walker Asks for Federal Rail Money

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MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Several months after rejecting federal funds to build high-speed rail across Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is now asking for at least $150 million to add trains for an existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago line.

Walker said Tuesday the federal funds would be used to buy two train sets and eight locomotives as well as build a maintenance facility in Milwaukee.

The announcement came after the Republican governor, upholding a campaign promise, turned down $810 million to build a Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed line. Walker had criticized the rail line as a waste of taxpayer money.

He said upgrading this line, however, will save the state money through lower operating expenses, fewer capital costs and more ticket revenue while helping to accommodate growth in the rail line.

"That's good for business, that's good for business travelers and it's yet one more incentive to do business here in southeastern Wisconsin," he said.

The money would come from $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds that Florida was awarded but rejected. Walker said Wisconsin was filing its application jointly with Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Amtrak.

He said one big difference between his proposal and the Madison-Milwaukee line was a proven level of demand. The Hiawatha line is an established corridor with access points already in place, and ridership is only expected to grow, he said.

"You've got a proven commodity here, and we're making it better," he said.

Amtrak's Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago offers seven trips in each direction from Monday through Saturday, and six trips on Sunday.

Walker said the grant would allow for more and faster trips. The train currently travels at 79 mph, making the trip about 90 minutes each way. The upgrades would allow it to eventually travel as fast as 110 mph, shaving nearly 30 minutes from the trip, he said.

Walker added that he didn't expect the $22 one-way fare to go up.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett issued a statement supporting the funding application. Barrett, the Democrat who ran against Walker in November and was one of Walker's most outspoken critics for refusing the other federal funds, said the decision to apply for the funds made sense.

However, Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman criticized Walker for applying for the same stimulus dollars he scoffed at earlier. The $810 million would have expanded public transportation to new parts of the state, Bauman said, yet Wisconsin "kicked in the face of the federal government" by rejecting the dollars as an example of government run amok.

"Now here we're applying for the same federal stimulus money, the exact same source of money, and somehow this is wonderful and good and this is going to promote the economic fortunes of southeastern Wisconsin," he said.

Walker said the grant would also cover a train shed that was to have been covered by the $810 million grant. He said the new grant would cover some of the cost, saving state taxpayers nearly $20 million.

He said he didn't think his refusal of previous funds would hurt his current application because the new request involves upgrades that would benefit other states as well.

One of those states is Missouri, where Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is seeking nearly $1 billion as part of the grant application.

His application will seek $373 million for upgrades to existing Missouri lines and about $600 million to plan, design and buy land for a separate line dedicated to high-speed rail only.

Democratic lawmakers in Madison sent a letter Tuesday urging Walker to apply for an even larger share of Florida's funds. The 14 Senate and Assembly members suggested Walker could seek money to help improve freight train lines and increase travel choices.

Rep. Brett Hulsey of Madison asked Walker to seek $600 million to upgrade lines used to transport Dane County crops.

President Barack Obama has called for a six-year, $53 billion spending plan for high-speed rail as part of his goal of using infrastructure spending to jump-start job creation. In his State of the Union speech in January, Obama said he wanted to provide 80 percent of Americans with access to high-speed trains within a quarter of a century.

Amtrak's Hiawatha line carried nearly 800,000 passengers between Milwaukee and Chicago last year and is seeing growth this year, Walker said.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)