TRANSPORTATION:

Wis. halts rail project as election fallout begins

Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi said the state is suspending its work on an $810 million Milwaukee-Madison rail line after Gov.-elect Scott Walker (R) reaffirmed his pledge to kill the project.

The announcement is a harsh realization for some advocates who fear that the results of Tuesday's midterms could spell trouble for the nation's nascent high-speed rail system. Candidates who came out against rail projects won gubernatorial races in Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin and a GOP-controlled House is expected to be tight-fisted on rail funds.

Even Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the presumed chairman of the House committee in charge of transportation funding, gave high-speed rail supporters pause by saying he wants to re-evaluate grants already distributed.

In Wisconsin, Walker ran adamantly against the project, saying it would cost the state too much money without helping enough people. The Republican promised throughout the campaign to "kill the train" and return federal grant money set aside for the project.

Supporters had hoped that a federal deal signed Monday that committed the state to spending the money would keep the project going regardless, but contractors have stopped all work on the venture as of yesterday.

"At [outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's] request, I have asked contractors and consultants working on the high-speed rail project to temporarily interrupt their work for a few days," Busalacchi said in a statement. "In light of the election results, our agency will be taking a few days to assess the real world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped."

There were no details about how long the project would be suspended or whether it would be canceled.

In a news conference the day after the election, Walker confirmed that he was exploring options to cancel the project.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, said the news of the project's suspension was "very upsetting."

"I've always believed that Walker was going to follow through on his promise" to kill the train, Harnish said. "The critical thing is that the citizens of Wisconsin have made it clear to him and the state Assembly that they want this train."

Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich (R) used his post-election news conference to restate his opposition to the state's planned 3C line that would connect Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

"Passenger rail is not in Ohio's future," Kasich said. "That train is dead."

In Florida, Gov.-elect Rick Scott (R) has been mum on his plans for the state's Tampa-Orlando line, thought to be the nation's most likely project. But in debates and campaign appearances, he was adamant that the project not use state funds. The state has received more than $2 billion in federal grants for the $2.6 billion project. The state is seeking another $300 million to be combined with state funds to complete the line.

'Mixed' election results

Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said the election night results were "mixed" and that he was worried about what would happen when incoming governors started pushing back against the rail lines.

"The cities and states and regions that get high-speed rail will prosper, while the ones that don't will suffer. There's no two ways of looking at it," Kunz said. "Some people are really trying to hang on to the past."

Still, supporters did see a victory in California, where pro-rail Democrat Jerry Brown defeated Republican Meg Whitman, who had opposed state spending on the lines. The line, expected to break ground in 2012 and slated to initially run from San Francisco to Los Angeles, is considered one of the most promising after Tampa-Orlando.

Mary Ellen Curto, executive director of the American High-Speed Rail Alliance, said she would wait to see what happened as the Republicans left campaign mode and began thinking about the issues around high-speed rail.

"I think Republicans have a very clear idea that congestion on the ground and in the air is affecting productivity and is affecting overall global competitiveness," Curto said. "I think the way high-speed rail is going to get implemented in this country is in places where the metrics show it's a positive business model. If these governors have data that show it's not going to give a good return on investment, then they're doing what's best for their state."

Both Walker and Kasich have promised to either return or redirect federal grants. Returning the money would put it back in a pool for rail lines in other states and the Department of Transportation says rail funds cannot be used for another purpose, such as road repair.

Ken Prendergast, executive director of the pro-train group All Aboard Ohio, said he could not tell whether Kasich would follow through on his promise to return the funds. But he said that Kasich, who has criticized the 3C project for being too slow, is demonstrating that he does not understand how rail development will happen.

"You have to recognize that there are choices and all of this is leading up to the big ticket item," Pendergast said. "High-speed rail is a result of evolution, not creationism. One thing we have not conveyed is the step-by-step process of going from no trains to high-speed rail."

Mica's disappointment

Meanwhile, planners are worried that Mica, the Republican in line to take over the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will be less friendly to rail projects than they originally thought. In an interview with the Associated Press Wednesday, Mica said he wanted to review grants already distributed by the Federal Railroad Administration.

"I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense," Mica told the AP. "The administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow-speed trains to nowhere."

Mica has been a longtime advocate of high-speed rail but has been critical of the FRA grant process and project selection in the past. Spokesman Justin Harclerode said that the congressman is interested in projects that would be competitive with high-speed rail lines in Europe and Asia, something averaging around 150 mph.

"Mica still believes that any high-speed rail initiative needs to be in a region that makes sense, can attract private-sector investment and has a reasonable chance to be economically successful," Harclerode said.

Mica specifically noted the Northeast corridor as the only region in the United States with enough population density to justify a rail line, but Harclerode added that he has mentioned California as a project that merited grant money. While the Northeast corridor has received $159 million in administration grants, Amtrak has committed to investing more in making a line between Washington D.C., New York City and Boston for a high-speed train.

Still, the interview was a surprise for some rail supporters, who expressed hope that Mica would be a positive force for them in the House.

"Mica is one of the strongest proponents for high-speed rail," Curto said. "I've been to his subcommittee several times, and he's waving the rail flag and he's interested in doing it the best way."

Kunz, meanwhile, said he was encouraged that Mica "really knows the difference between true high-speed rail and patchwork, incremental rail." Kunz said he would like to see the T&I Committee work to secure funding for a large, nationwide system that would compete internationally.

Harclerode said the congressman would continue to push for rail projects where they made sense and in regions where state governments would be supportive.