About nine months ago, I was pleased to learn that there was a chance West Central Wisconsin may be considered to become part of the high-speed rail service network connecting Milwaukee, Madison and the Twin Cities. Last week, the federal government reaffirmed that a portion of the $8 billion in stimulus funding was awarded to rail corridors that would include the Eau Claire area for further study. In fact, for the first time in four decades, more funding in the proposed federal budget is being set aside for domestic travel projects than on space exploration.
For the past few decades, it was always assumed that any passenger train improvements would benefit the LaCrosse market instead of having trains travel northwest out of the Amtrak hub in Tomah. However, as more preliminary studies were conducted over the past few years, supporters of hosting a high-speed rail line along the I-94 corridor deserved merit.
I have always been a glass is half-full, rather than half-empty guy. So I do not want to rain on the high-speed rail enthusiasts' parade when I state that this potential funding boost to the local economy and the future of transportation in the Chippewa Valley is nothing more than a political carrot. Think about this: Most every state is going broke, the federal government has incurred the largest deficit in history and there are more people who are out of work who probably would not support the concept that really fast trains will answer any of our short-term problems - especially if taxpayers have to foot the bill.
On the other hand, initial construction of a complex rail network will employ highly-paid engineers, planner and laborers. But, the first wave of funds will run out within a few years after all of the studies and environmental analysis has concluded. The most recent studies estimate that about 40,000 vehicles travel Interstate 94 between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities each day. Yet, the emphasis with this rail iniative is to establish a Milwaukee to Madison route before anyone can even dream about an expansion to Western Wisconsin.
There are a lot of reasons to remain positive about the future of rail transit in West Central Wisconsin, but I have doubts that any of this will materialize in the next two decades. Maybe the federal government will once again bail out the states who cannot raise enough revenue through existing taxes to pay for whatever needs to be done to finish the expensive project. If that's the case, then all of us will keep paying for something that is just a pipe dream and a political maneuver to appease voters in the near term. Or, maybe the most appropriate use of the money earmarked for NASA should be designated to fund high-speed rail.