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Incoming Wisconsin governor may block Twin Cities-Chicago high speed rail


MADISON, Wis. (KTTC-DT/AP) -- A nine-state effort to create a network of fast, frequent trains could be derailed by Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker's vow to reject federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison.

Walker has called the construction a waste of taxpayer money.  But without rail between Milwaukee and Madison, it will be difficult for Midwestern leaders to fulfill their vision of having 110-mph trains linking Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

That route was planned as the backbone of the effort called the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

"Obviously, if we don't have a willing partner, it makes it more difficult to move forward," Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's passenger rail office, told The Capital Times. "We all have our state politics to deal with, and the fact Wisconsin is in the middle (between Minnesota and Illinois) is a problem."

Minnesota transportation officials are still moving forward with a series of meetings in that state along with four in Wisconsin. They want to obtain information for an environmental impact study on roughly a dozen proposed rail routes between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Milwaukee.

The meetings are part of a $1.2 million joint planning effort by the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments, the Midwest Rail Initiative and the Federal Railroad Administration. The federal government contributed $600,000 to the study's cost, with Minnesota and Wisconsin each pitching in $300,000.

Although previous plans focused on routes through Madison, the new study is looking at 14 possibilities, none of which has been ruled out, Krom said.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that most of those options lead through Madison and then go west through Prairie du Chien or northwest through either La Crosse or Eau Claire. But three proposals would bypass Madison.

One would follow the existing route of the Empire Builder, which stops in Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse. The Empire Builder makes daily trips between Chicago, the Twin Cities and the Pacific Northwest.

Two other options would run north through Fond du Lac and Neenah before turning west, through Stevens Point.

Walker has said he would be open to spending the $810 million on upgrading current Hiawatha and Empire Builder routes -- but that would require federal approval.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the stimulus money can be spent only on high-speed rail, although his office has declined to comment on whether the cash could be shifted to other rail projects. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie declined to elaborate on the Republican governor-elect's remarks.

No federally funded transportation project can proceed without extensive environmental studies, and no such studies have been done on any route except the Milwaukee-to-Madison segment, said Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, a major supporter of the high-speed rail project.

Renlund said Minnesota's study had to examine all possible options, even though Wisconsin transportation officials weren't interested in bypassing Madison.

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