WATERTOWN — For Ron Krueger, the last 10 months have been like watching a train wreck. Only there never was a train.
The $810 million high-speed rail project that would have connected Madison to Milwaukee, and eventually Minneapolis, would have created jobs and redevelopment for Krueger's city of more than 23,000 people and a new image for our state.
A gubernatorial election got in the way and now my hometown is left with an empty Pick 'n Save store that was supposed to have been replaced with a train station, the possible loss of existing jobs and railroad track that still needs repair.
"Nobody ever looked at the big picture," said Krueger, the mayor since 2007. "If you have a company and want to relocate or open up a branch someplace, are you seriously going to consider Wisconsin after what's just happened? It's just a disappointment."
Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker stuck to his campaign promise to kill the train project that would have been an expansion of Amtrak's Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago. The Obama administration obliged. It pulled the money, dispersing it to other states, and leaving residents in Dane County driving to Columbus, Portage or Wisconsin Dells to catch Amtrak's Empire Builder.
Ten of us took that train to Glacier National Park in 2004. We drove 45 minutes from the Far West Side to Columbus for the afternoon departure. Our round-trip fare for my family of four was $825. It was a great trip and a smooth ride but it would have been more convenient to catch the train in Madison.
No one thing led to the demise of the Madison-Milwaukee route, according to Krueger. Instead the opposition was more like a steam locomotive, starting out slowly before careening out of control.
There was "way too much" emphasis on only using the train to shuttle passengers between Milwaukee and Madison and little talk about what the improvements to the rail line would do for freight trains, according to Krueger.
He's also miffed at Walker's concern over spending $7 million to operate the line. Krueger is familiar with big-ticket transportation costs. The state Department of Transportation is building a $91 million bypass around the west side of Watertown. It's part of a 50-mile, $325 million project to make Highway 26 four lanes from Janesville to Highway 60 north of Watertown.
One part of the bypass is the construction of a bridge over the proposed rail line. The bridge is nearing completion. The tracks, near the Gypsy Road crossing, were covered with snow last week.
"I was still hoping beyond hope that we could get through to Gov. Walker and convince him of the overall long-term economic benefits, but it's not coming back to us now," Krueger said.
Krueger believes conservative radio talk show hosts also played a role and backed Walker into a corner on the rail issue.
"They were anti-Obama on anything Obama did," Krueger said. "Walker's a big boy and he can back himself out, but that's where it started."
The train was supposed to be an alternative to flying or driving to places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, St. Louis or Denver. It was not meant to be a commuter train to Milwaukee for Brewers games or Summerfest.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz promised Friday to keep pursuing the rail project.
"After all, Chicago and the Twin Cities still need to be connected and I'm going to fight ... to see that they get connected through Madison and not Dubuque," he wrote on his blog.
Krueger is also being proactive.
Instead of $30 million of redevelopment along the Rock River and celebrating the creation of 400 to 500 jobs for his area, he's worried about losing 60 to 70 jobs. The city had planned to creatively use tax incremental financing, in combination with the rail funds, to help a manufacturing company improve its facilities. Now there is a danger of the firm moving out of the city.
That's why Krueger, chairman of the Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium, met with other city leaders last week to form an economic development group focused on Watertown.
"It's probably going to be very difficult to attract new companies to Wisconsin," Krueger said. "We know we need to do more."
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by e-mail at email@example.com.