Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Trains are rolling in Wisconsin- if they can find the track

Trains and railways have been in the news in a number of ways in Wisconsin in recent weeks, and it illustrates the many and growing needs regarding rail travel in the state, as well as how Gov Walker's decision to turn away $800 million in high-speed rail funding looks even more absurd, if that's possible.

Let's start from earlier this month when Gov Walker announced that he would use state taxpayer dollars to buy track from the Union Pacific Railroad on lines that connect Madison to Reedsburg and Cottage Grove.
The purchase will cost $30 million with $5 million going toward track improvements and the other $25 million for the land, officials said. The purchase is being made jointly with the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission with funds from the Freight Rail Preservation Program, which provides grants to local units of government, industries and railroads for the purpose of preserving and rehabilitation essential rail lines.

The line will continue to be run by the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad under a lease with the WRRTC, according to the release.

Last year, WSOR transported more than 5,000 cars on the Madison to Reedsburg and Cottage Grove line, serving 23 customers including United Coop, Landmark Ag, Seneca Foods, R.R. Donnelly, Hanke, Greede Foundries and Hydrite Chemical, according to the release. Items transported include grain, chemicals, polymers, paper, food products, lumber, aggregate and metal.
It seems interesting that they’d buy up this track instead of having ton he Union Pacific do their own work on it (a concern brought up in the comments secti, which actually has some good explanations of the issues involved), but if it makes it easier to make sure this needed infrastructure is being maintained, I don’t see it as a big deal. What is noteworthy is that the $30 million is part of the $52 million borrowed in the latest budget under the Freight Rail Preservation Program (as outlined in Page 10 of the DOT Budget), and I do find it noteworthy that this purchase with borrowed money comes at a time when we have a significant Transportation Fund deficit looming for the next budget. In addition, there is major uncertainty about the amount of future funding of transportation coming from the Feds, as today's Senate passage of a bill funding transportation only funds things through December, which means the state might want to hold onto any extra money that it can.

· But there is little doubt that rail maintenance and infrastructure is an issue in Wisconsin that needs to be addressed. State Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale (yes, the guy who joined Russ Decker in selling out Senate Dems in late 2010 on state employee contracts, and promptly got a job with the Walker Administration) admits that rail capacity in the state has been stretched to its limits, and it’s leading to more train-vehicle accidents as well as congestion in places where there hasn’t been in the past. Wisconsin Watch notes that the huge increase in frac sand mining has also helped to cause the unsustainable increase in usage.
Plale estimates that Progressive Rail, a short line which runs from Chippewa Falls north to Cameron, has increased from one train a week to two or three a day — which would be about 15 to 20 times more traffic. A representative from the rail line declined to provide exact numbers but did confirm the growth was due in part to frac sand. The larger Union Pacific railroad has reported that transporting frac sand in Wisconsin has helped it offset a 14 percent decrease in coal shipments...

Professional Logistics Group Inc., a consultant company based in Chicago, found in 2012 that transportation is 58 percent of the cost of frac sand. It is no wonder, then, that companies have begun investing in cheaper modes of moving their goods. And frac sand industry executives say rail is the best mode of transportation available.

“Rail is four times more fuel-efficient than a highway truck,” said Dave Fellon, president of Progressive Rail. “You can move a ton of freight over 425 miles on just one gallon of fuel. That’s an amazing statistic.”
The need for more and better track was also illustrated in a story in today’s La Crosse Tribune, where the Dairyland Power Cooperative says it may have to shut down a plant this winter if it can’t get the supplies it needs to run its operations.
Dairyland Power Cooperative says it could run out of coal at its Genoa generating plant by January if the BNSF railroad doesn’t rapidly accelerate deliveries.

Halfway through the summer shipping season, the coal supply has dwindled to “perilous levels” and is falling further behind each week, according to a memo sent last week to lawmakers.

The La Crosse-based utility, which serves about 250,000 mostly rural customers, relies on coal to generate power at plants in Alma and Genoa. Alma is served directly by a BNSF rail line, while coal is shipped to Genoa on barges loaded at a terminal in southeast Iowa.
And once the river freezes, it has to all come by rail, and the coal isn't going through to Iowa fast enough.

Hmmm, if only there was some kind of federal program that could have paid for maintenance on Wisconsin rail lines and put in new ones for passenger rail (so they don’t have to use the current ones and cause further congestion on the tracks). One that wouldn’t have cost the state a dime in cost-sharing. OH WAIT, THERE WAS.

Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz hit the mark in an article in Madison’s Isthmus newspaper showing how Scott Walker’s anti-Obama pose against passenger rail in 2010 continues to leave Wisconsin behind, leading to massive state spending with nothing coming back in return.
Walker claimed that he opposed the 100% federally funded train because of the annual operating costs to the state, which amounted to around $7 million. But now the state is on the line for as much as $118 million, for which it will have received nothing at all. In other words, for the dollars the governor has put at risk, the state could have funded the new train operation for about a decade and a half.

Had Walker not been elected governor, the Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison service would have started a year ago. Sleek new trains would have been connecting us and providing economic development opportunities not just in Milwaukee but in other places along the line. A train station near Monona Terrace would be bustling and contributing to a revival of that portion of Madison's downtown. Even more importantly, Wisconsin would have been literally on the map as the first place in the country outside of the northeast corridor to be served by new higher-speed passenger rail.

Instead, Wisconsin now ranks a consistent 37th in job creation under Walker, the Talgo plant and its Milwaukee jobs are gone, the Madison station never happened and the ancillary development around it is on the ropes, our own tax dollars are on their way to build the same kind of system in other states, and we're still on the hook for as much as $118 million. Even if we don't end up paying out that much, every dollar that is lost will be lost completely.
The lack of big-picture planning and fiscal stupidity of Walker rejecting the train money continues to be the “gift” that keeps on giving in this state, isn’t it? And in light of the increases in rail shipments and major interstate projects, having new rail online sure would be handy these days. Maybe the next governor of Wisconsin will care more about improving transportation and moving Wisconsin's economy along instead of caring about what a couple of radio talk show hosts and suburban racists think.


  1. I just had a gut reaction thinking what is Walker's strategy in the long game. Plan being the state purchases the rail line with borrowed funds. Is it then an option to sell the state owned rail line to some said entity that has been coming up against resistance within the state? Something I am noodling on.

    1. Worse, unsafe rail infrastructure invites disaster. I was up north last week driving along a rail line and saw an absolutely endless freight train composed entirely of tanker cars. I'm pretty sure those cars contained that highly flammable crude oil that North Dakota has been shipping southward. And that's the kind of crude that has figured in numerous, sometimes fatal accidents in other states. Crude oil shipments via rail are way up and so it's insane not to ensure that rail infrastructure is in top condition. And you're right: Walker's refusal to accept federal high-speed rail funding figures into this equation.

  2. Wisconsin Southern is now owned by Watco, a company allied with the Koch Brothers.
    Now why would you think that they would get a special deal like that from Scotty?
    I'd say the only thing holding them back is that the state taxpayers pick up the maintenance bill and Watco leases the line for a song - about $35,000 a year, and they make even more money (unaudited and no-bid) on the upkeep.
    Oh, which to do? Screw the taxpayers here or screw them there? Decisions, decisions ...........