Prospects for a high-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago in the foreseeable future have disappeared, the casualty of funding shortfalls and political priorities.
The refusal of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to accept federal money to build a link in the line "does kill it ... at least for the short term," said Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission. "We could be talking 10 to 15 years."
But transportation officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the federal government are continuing to work on proposals for a high-speed line, committing $1.2 million to plan possible routes in case prospects improve over the next few years.
While Minnesota says a system could be running by 2017, there is no indication that enough federal or state money will be available to make it happen.
After 15 years of pursuing high-speed rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, advocates are focusing immediate attention on simply upgrading existing Amtrak service by adding a daily train or nudging up speeds.
The dashed prospects for high speed come as President Obama vowed in last month's State of the Union address to make it available to 80 percent of Americans by 2035.
Obama dedicated $8 billion in stimulus money for high speed -- defined as 110 miles per hour or faster. But Walker's decision to reject $810 million of it to build a link between Milwaukee and Madison resulted in those funds being re-routed to other projects. Walker said the line would have cost Wisconsin millions to operate.
"It pretty much kills it until he's no longer governor, for starters," said David Levinson, a professor with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. "Even if he's no longer governor, the federal government might not be interested in funding high-speed rail at that point. ... I don't know if that window will ever come back."
Advocates aren't giving up.
"We're not dead," said Dan Krom, who directs Minnesota's passenger rail program and has worked for more than a decade on high-speed rail. Wisconsin's rejection of federal money "doesn't stop our work in getting to Chicago."
It takes several years to select a route and complete engineering work, he said, and "administrations can change."
Others moving ahead
While the Twin Cities-to-Chicago project has stalled, other regions are moving ahead. Illinois is using $1.1 billion in federal money to begin building high-speed from Chicago to St. Louis. California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance a San Diego-to-Sacramento line.
America 2050, a coalition of regional planners and academics supported by foundations, last month ranked urban corridors on their suitability for high-speed trains. It considered population, employment, transit ridership, air ridership and highway congestion in scoring the corridors.
The Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked fourth in the Great Lakes Region, behind Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-Indianapolis and Chicago-Detroit, but ahead of the Chicago-St. Louis line under construction.
"The Chicago-Minneapolis corridor may have the edge, because of the larger air market and the strength of ridership on the Milwaukee-Chicago section of the corridor," the study said.
Nationwide, the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked 23rd out of 86 corridors, outscored by many routes in the northeast and in California.
In an effort to gauge business support for high-speed rail, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked members if they supported the Milwaukee-to-Madison link as part of a system "connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities." They split, 214-214, on the question.
"There was no solid way to push," said Timothy Sheehy, president of the association.
"We vehemently oppose the Milwaukee-to-Madison line," said Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie. While not commenting on whether the governor might ever support a Twin Cities-Chicago line, Werwie said, "We cannot saddle our taxpayers with another ongoing operating-subsidy cost."
Krom acknowledges that operating costs are a challenge, with gasoline taxes designated for highways. "They don't have a sustainable funding source," he said of high-speed lines.
Wisconsin already faces a projected $3.6 billion budget gap and Minnesota faces a $6.2 billion deficit.
A line between Chicago and the Twin Cities running at speeds of 110 miles per hour could cost $1 billion to $4 billion to build. But a 200 mph system that would be an alternative to air travel could cost $25 billion to $30 billion.
"Nobody wants to spend money because of the deficit, ... and these services don't pay for themselves, unfortunately," the U's Levinson said.
But Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, says high-speed transportation will save energy and serve "a more mobile workforce ... making cities and regions more attractive to young people.
"These are long-term, expensive projects that do require a far-reaching vision about what we want to be."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504