Intercity High-Speed Rail Would Have Moved Wisconsin Forward
In 2010, Wisconsin was awarded $822 million dollars in federal grant funds to extend the popular Hiawatha passenger service to Madison. This project is part of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative which aims to build a 3,000-mile passenger rail network that connecting a nine state area featuring frequent service and top speeds of 110 MPH. Trains in the Racine - Kenosha – Milwaukee – Brookfield – Watertown - Madison corridor could conveniently serve 2.2 million Wisconsinites, or 40% of our population. Travelers would have access to our largest airports and a host of sports, arts and entertainment opportunities along the main business and educational artery in Wisconsin. Communities served by intercity passenger rail would benefit from quiet zones and safety upgrades to railway crossings.
Unfortunately, Governor-Elect Walker supported returning project funds to the federal government. He was heavily influenced by a radical minority whose arguments ignore the boondoggle of spending billions of our tax dollars on ever-expanding roads.
Following the November elections, the Sierra Club – John Muir Chapter reacted to news that contractors were ordered to halt construction on the intercity high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. We scrambled to organize a Statewide Day of Action to Save the Train on November 20.
Co-sponsors of our event included Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Dane Alliance for Rational Transportation, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Madison Peak Oil, ProRail, the United Transportation Union, the Wisconsin Network for Peace & Justice, and the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association & others.
Over 1,000 people braved chilly temperatures to speak out to save the train at rallies held in Madison, Milwaukee, Watertown, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Oshkosh, and Menomonie, Wisconsin on November 20. At the Madison rally, Scot Ross, Director of One Wisconsin Now, unrolled a scroll comprised of over 7,000 supporters who had recently signed a petition in support of the project between Madison and Milwaukee. While many in attendance could be described as progressives, these were far from partisan events. Republican Scott Walker supporter Bob Lien, owner of Lien Tech Inc, Steel Fabricator, of Stoughton, spoke eloquently about how abandoning this project, for which he was awarded a bid, puts half of his business for next year on hold.
Elected officials who spoke included Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger, La Crosse Mayor Matt Harter, State Sen. Spencer Coggs, State Representatives Jennifer Shilling and Mark Pocan, and La Crosse County Board member Tara Johnson and Eau Claire County Board member Jim Dunning.
Amy Gearhart, Chair of the College Democrats of Wisconsin, spoke compellingly at Rainbow Park in Oshkosh about losing quality graduates from UW-System schools to other states with better transit. Rosemary Wehnes discussed the co-benefits of improving the rail line between Milwaukee and Madison for both passenger and freight rail. A recent study shows that expansion of freight rail in the US can create approximately 7,800 green jobs for every $1 billion of capital invested. Freight rail is also extremely efficient, averaging 436 miles per gallon to haul a ton of freight. Freight trains can currently only travel about 10 miles per hour between Madison and Watertown due to the poor condition of the tracks.
Other speakers included representatives from Citizen Action of Wisconsin, ELPC, 9 to 5 Working Women, NEWRails, ProRail, the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers, the United Transportation Union Local 311, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Madison even enjoyed a wonderful performance by the Raging Grannies!
Thanks to Sierra Club Coal and Rail Programs Apprentice Elizabeth Ward for her tireless work to line up venues, media and speakers for this event. We also could not have turned out the masses without tremendous help from our dedicated volunteer activists: Jeremy Gragert, Carol Gruba, Richard Spindler, Jan Moldenhauer, Pat Wilson, Barb Thomas, Liz Wessel, Rosemary Wehnes, and Caryl Terrell, who helped organize local events and promoted this event to friends and allies.
On the heals of this event, Sierra Club and other groups worked to maximize turnout at join MN / WisDOT hearings held in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, and Madison. As a result, hundreds spoke out to support specific routes for extending efficient intercity passenger train service to the Twin Cities. Notable at the hearing was a veteran who spoke in La Crosse about the benefits of being able to travel to VA hospitals located in Chicago and Madison.
Unfortunately, Governor-Elect Walker was unmoved by the groundswell of grassroots support for expanding passenger train service. As a result, On December 9, 2010 Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood reallocated our funding to California, Illinois, North Carolina and other states who will gladly accept the funds and benefits of expanding passenger train service. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is slated to become an economic backwater. When Scott Walker sent millions of dollars out of our state, he also killed thousands of jobs. Fully implementing passenger train service would have created 9,570 jobs, $173 million in additional household income, and $704 million in increased property values for Wisconsin.
When we lost this project, we also lost the opportunity to take 500,000 cars off the road. It would have reduced traffic, our dependence on oil, and carbon dioxide emissions by 190,000 metric tons per year. “Wisconsin is now on track to become an economic backwater,” said Elizabeth Ward, Programs Staff for the Sierra Club—John Muir Chapter. “Wisconsin’s loss—the jobs, economic development, increased tourism—are other states’ gains.
Despite this tremendous disappointment, we will continue the fight for clean transportation that Wisconsin needs for so many reasons. We will also hold Gov. Elect Walker for all the jobs he destroyed when re-election time comes. “Whether it’s to reduce greenhouse gases or to avoid congestion, Wisconsin citizens need transportation choices,” explained Liz Wessel, head of the Clean Transportation Team for Sierra Club—John Muir Chapter. Contact us with questions about our clean transportation campaign at (608)256-0565 or Elizabeth.Ward@sierraclub.org
The Sierra Club John Muir Chapter thanks Katherine Olson for taking the photographs from the Madison rally featured in this article. Click here for more photos of the Statewide Day of Action to Save the Train!
Visit the Save the Train Wisconsin Facebook Page
Read our press release reacting to the news that Wisconsin lost our funding for intercity, high-speed rail
For more information about the benefits of high-speed rail, check out these sites:
Public Interest Reserch Group (PIRG): Connecting the Midwest, a study on the economic benefits of rail
Wisconsin Department of Transportation: Econnection, the economic benefits of rail
Independent Traveler: “Top 10 Reasons to Travel by Train”
West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition: “La Crosse, Eau Claire Coalitions agree: Milwaukee-Madison must move forward”
West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition: "Washington State GOP leaders: Wisconsin Republicans should get on board with high-speed rail"
2006, Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc. http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/projects/state/docs/mwrri-economic.pdf
2008, Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming http://dnr.wi.gov/environmentprotect/gtfgw/documents/Final_Report.pdf