Wisconsin will receive $810 million in federal stimulus money to establish high-speed passenger rail from Milwaukee to Madison and to study the possibility of extending it to the Twin Cities, President Barack Obama's administration will announce Thursday.
That would eventually bring 110 mph passenger rail service from Chicago to Madison after years of fruitless attempts to jump-start the project and give Madison its first passenger rail service since 1971.
As part of a national rollout following Obama's State of the Union address Thursday, federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan is expected to be in Milwaukee for an afternoon press conference to discuss Wisconsin's share of $8 billion in awards for high-speed rail
"This is a major job creation project that will provide a long-term boost to our economy," Gov. Jim Doyle said in a statement. "Through high-speed rail we will connect the major centers of commerce in Wisconsin and in the region. This was a national competition and the results clearly demonstrate that Wisconsin had a very strong application."
The Obama administration estimates the awards will create tens of thousands of jobs in the nearer term for workers laying and improving track and building stations. Supporters argue high-speed rail also could spur long-term economic growth just as the nation's Interstate highways did a generation ago.
Obama said in his address Wednesday that he would be in Tampa, Fla., Thursday and that workers there plan to start construction of a high-speed rail line.
"There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help our nation move goods, services and information," he said.
To win the stimulus grants, among the largest of those being awarded nationally, Wisconsin had to compete with other requests totaling $55 billion for the $8 billion available.
The 80-mile Madison to Milwaukee line will receive $810 million for new and renovated stations and track improvements to extend Amtrak's existing Hiawatha service from Chicago to the state capital, according to advance details from the White House. The state's existing Milwaukee to Chicago line will receive $12 million to do track and signal improvements to improve timeliness and prepare for eventual 110 mph service. In October, state officials estimated the project would cost $651.8 million, and said the remainder of the money would be used as a reserve if the project goes over budget.
Another $1 million is being awarded to study a possible high-speed rail line between Madison and Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, called the news "awesome," saying it could help foster high-tech collaboration between scientists and investors from within the region, the nation's coasts and the rest of the world.
"It's a way of facilitating global commerce," Still said. "There's still no substitute for people meeting people in a convenient way."
Work on the project could start relatively soon, since the state has already done most of the preliminary work and planning. But the 110 mph service to Madison could take until 2016, according to the state's October request for the money from the Federal Railroad Administration. The Legislature's budget committee also likely would have to sign off on spending the federal stimulus money, as it has on past grants.
The announcement also could lead to more train manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin under an agreement between the state and Spanish train maker Patentes Talgo.
Wisconsin agreed to buy two trains from Talgo for $47.5 million, which was expected to create 80 jobs in the state for workers assembling the trains. The state could buy two more with the stimulus money.
The announcement drew immediate praise from the state's delegation in Congress. U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, said the effect in a state struggling with high unemployment could go beyond short-term jobs.
"Psychologically, this announcement should boost everyone's confidence that our local economy is taking a turn for the better," Baldwin said in a statement
The deal with Talgo drew criticism from Republican state lawmakers because the contract was awarded to the company in a no-bid deal when Doyle administration officials determined no other company was interested and able to do the work.
But even one of those critics saw some positives in the announcement.
"If we have to invest money in rail, high-speed rail is much more likely to have a positive economic impact than commuter rail," said Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia.
Vos remained concerned about excessive federal borrowing to pay for the stimulus and possible state costs to help establish the line and subsidize it going forward.
Local high-speed rail advocate Keith Plasterer said supporters were disappointed "so many times" by setbacks that it was difficult to believe the project might finally happen. Plasterer hopes the rail lines will eventually extend to include other locations, like La Crosse and the Twin Cities.
"It'd be a good start. There's a lot more that needs to be done, but this is a good start," Plasterer said.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said winning the federal money might be Gov. Doyle's "greatest legacy" and could have far-reaching effects.
"This is going to provide an even stronger connection between our state's center of industry and commerce in Milwaukee and our center of government and research in Madison," he said.
State Journal reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed to this article.