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scott walker
A screen shot from Scott Walker's web site.

When it comes to Scott Walker's attention-grabbing pitch on the campaign trail to "stop the train," it appears what he's promising is easier said than done.

On the stump for governor, the Milwaukee County executive is fond of saying he will put the brakes on $810 million in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail service between Milwaukee and Madison.

"I will put an end to this boondoggle the day I take office," boasts Walker at speeches around the state and on his website.

Walker's campaign pledge not only assumes Republicans, who voted collectively against the federal stimulus bill, will win back the Congressional majority in November, but flies in the face of his voting record while a state representative from 1993 to 2002, according to voting records from the state Legislative Reference Bureau.

Instead of high-speed rail service, Walker says he'll use the money to improve the state's road and bridges, a move that, at a minimum, would require an act of Congress.

State officials express doubt that what Walker is proposing is even possible, while federal transportation officials say they will not "speculate about hypothetical scenarios."

"There is no road map for killing a project that has been in the design process for two decades, has had bipartisan support until now, will create 5,500 jobs, and will connect centers of commerce throughout the Midwest," says Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi. "The state isn't in the business of stopping projects once they are started."

By the time Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett face-off in the November election, with the winner taking office in January, the project will be well under way, including the upgrading of rail lines in Jefferson County and the designing of the Madison train station. In addition, the $810 million stimulus grant already will have arrived in state coffers, Renlund says.

Also by year's end, the state estimates it will have about one-third of the stimulus money, or roughly $300 million, under contract with companies, including engineering and construction firms, Renlund adds.

By most estimates, returning the money would be no easy task, considering the state is $2.7 billion in debt.

Rather than repaying the money, Walker says he would take a page from former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson's play book.

In the 1990s, Thompson was able to have $241 million in federal funds re-appropriated toward Milwaukee's Marquette interchange, rather than spent on the rail corridor.

Thompson was quoted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this month saying the same thing should be done with this round of federal rail money.

Thompson, like Walker, says that when Republicans take over Congress after the November elections, they will allow the state to use the stimulus money for purposes other than rail service from Madison to Milwaukee.

"It is a totally phony issue," retorts Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, "[Walker] is totally lying, but he's going to keep saying it because it's a line that gets applause."

Walker remains steadfast in his belief that he can turn the train's momentum around, even though state and federal transportation officials are suggesting the opposite.

"We are not going to concede just because they say it can't happen," Walker says. "(Gov. Jim) Doyle and Barrett are wrong. We can stop the train."

As for his prior votes for state budgets that included state money to support rail service, Walker said earlier this month after a campaign stop in Waunakee that he voted in favor of those budgets primarily because they included massive property and income tax cuts.

Naturally, a state budget includes hundreds of policies and provisions, with few lawmakers agreeing with every aspect of it even if they vote in favor of the final budget bill.

Yet that didn't stop Walker during the final days of the Republican primary from running an attack ad stating that his main challenger, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, wasn't a fiscal conservative because he had voted for a federal transportation bill 10 years ago that included $9 billion in pork, including Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere."

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Now, with free stimulus money to spend - unlike most federal transportation projects, a 20 percent financial match from the state is not required - Walker maintains the money can be better spent elsewhere.

He says roads and bridges need the money because Doyle and the state Legislature over the past eight years have "raided" $1.3 billion from the state transportation fund to close gaps elsewhere in the state budget.

"Right now, we need the money for other things," Walker says.

He also says he is concerned about the annual cost to the state of operating the Madison-to-Milwaukee line.

Renlund says the state estimates it will cost $7.5 million to operate the new line when it opens in 2013. This year, the cost to operate the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago is $5.5 million. The federal government is paying all but $520,000, or 10 percent, of that amount.

"We are expecting the same amount of federal support for the new line," Renlund says.

Olivia Alair, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation, points out it was former Republican Gov. Thompson who got the ball rolling on high speed rail in the state. He signed a budget in 1989 that included state funding for high-speed rail and in 1993 created first-time bonding capacity for rail, according to the state DOT.

Alair says the push by the federal government toward high-speed rail is similar to the push under President Eisenhower to connect the country by highways.

"It's hard to imagine what would have happened to Wisconsin if its leaders had decided they didn't want to be connected to the rest of the country back then," she says.