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Wisconsin Rail Line: What Never Was and What Should Be

The title is a reference to the Led Zeppelin song, What Is and What Should Never Be.

Years ago, a high-speed rail line was proposed to be created, connecting Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago in one fellow swoop. It was derailed by state legislature.


Over fifteen million people live in the regions of southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. This densely populated area of the Midwest is an epicenter of commerce, tourism, education, and development. Straddled by highways of great proportions, Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Chicago is one of the busiest corridors in America; Interstate 90 between Chicago and Madison even greater, especially for shipping. Milwaukee and Chicago already had the Amtrak rail line as well. Yet, something felt missing.

As Milwaukee is in the midst of a development boom, Madison a hip college town, and Chicago evolving into a global powerhouse, it would seem appropriate to implement a form of public transit, linking Madison and Milwaukee together with efficiency and growth in mind.

Much of the state of Wisconsin agreed in 2010. It wasn’t until Scott Walker was elected as governor the same year, that state objectives and policy would take a different approach.


Then-governor Jim Doyle left the fate of the rail line and it’s funding to the new governor. The taxing of residents, funding of public transport, and the funding of the DOT was now in Walker’s hands.

The high-speed rail line, the 810 million dollar proposal, was rejected by Scott Walker, derailing the proposal and project in its entirety. After hearing his campaigns for elections, it was a given, and no surprise, due to him making the rejection a proud focal point of his.

Perhaps it was due to the the grant being categorical: granted under president Obama, the grant was specifically designed as a federal grant for the rail line. Perhaps it was a push against democratic candidate Tom Barrett, who supported it. Yet, the rail line might have been simply an enigma of Walker’s own image.

The Republican Party favors state independence over federal authority, they favor a small government over a large one that would perhaps infringe with the states‘ individual needs, embracing the checks and balances system esttablished in the Federalist articles and constitution. Walker had seen the categorical grant approved under Obama as too much oversight from a federal level; it didn’t give Wisconsin flexibility in its needs and spending. Categorical grants threat the idea of small government and the implications of checks and balances on national power. It could be seen that if the grant was simply a block one, Walker would’ve taken the chance without any hesitation. A block grant to Wisconsin is $810 million—yet Walker could do whatever he wanted with it. But it wasn’t, so he didn’t like it.

What Republicans do like though is empowerment and money; the republican governors fantasize at the idea of making their state as profitable as possible.

A transit system like a high-speed rail line would almost definitely bring in more money to Wisconsin, right?

Tommy Thompson knew this from the start. He was the origin of the idea for the rail line, first proposing it in 1999.

He saw the proposal as a step into the future, and a method for long term growth. Walker dismissed these thoughts, and inserted his own: He decided that money from the state and the state only would be implemented for rebuilding bridges and roads.

Well, my street is turning to gravel. Clearly, these funds for roads and bridges were devoted To billion-dollar projects like the Zoo interchange, and rebuilding the Interstate 94 corridor from Chicago to Milwaukee. Both are almost entirely complete, as Tony Evers steps into office.

Yet, after all the yammering, a vital connection between Madison and Milwaukee is still missing.


Public transit is an old idea that is only recently beinf refreshed and revisited, especially in Wisconsin. Public transport is widely a federal-level guideline of discretionary spending implemented to the states’ needs and ideologies, much akin to the Eisenhower expansion of the interstate system in the 1950’s. Public systems like trains connect and do not divide, as they provide linkages to big, more distant cities. Wisconsin is only begging to understand and reimplement these ideas.

The beginning of a revitalized streetcar system is taking shape in downtown Milwaukee, with expansion to numerous neighborhoods on the horizon. The Amtrak line is widely popular and used daily for those who live in chicago and work in Milwaukee, and vice-versa. The same goes for those who live in Madison, and work in Milwaukee, for those students who live in Milwaukee, yet plan to go to UW-Madison(like myself). Yet, all they have is an interstate.

Although the commute isn’t entirely long at an hour, some don’t have an hour to spare simply commuting to and from work. Students do not have an hour to get to their college, or the money to move to a specific city just yet. For these situations, a high-speed rail line investment between Milwaukee and Madison saves time and money, and yet builds time and money simultaneously for the people of Wisconsin.

Scott walker said himself that the federal grant of the rail line put too much focus on Milwaukee and Madison over the rest of the state. Yet, Milwaukee and Madison account for more than half of the entire state’s population. The largest city in Wisconsin (the 30th largest city in the country) and the capital of the state are vital starting points and hubs for workers, students, and tourists to discover the rest of the state. Milwaukee easily connects to Chicago and Green Bay; Madison connects to the tourist destinations of Spring Green and Wisconsin Dells. The Madison-Milwaukee connection is probably the most vital connection in the entire state, which is why a rail line is necessary.

Wisconsin could ask for a new categorical grant for the rail line, or ask for a simplistic block grant for more freedom. Congress could devote part of their discretionary spending to Wisconsin for transportation department, in connection with the House‘s transportation standing committee. Federal oversight, while providing control over states, simultaneously gives states ideas and opportunities.


If Wisconsin is looking for a linkage between its most populated areas, its biggest cities, and growth in technology, population, revenue, and profit, a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison should be proposed again, with reform and updates to an ever-changing world. With environmental concern becoming more prevalent than ever, a large form of public transport is more necessary than ever. Tony Evers should look for funding from the government, or independent funding from Wisconsin legislature, as the rail line will create newfound opportunities for the entire state.

I know I would appreciate it; I want to remain living in West Allis, while potentially becoming a resident of Madison. A train would be epic.

Perhaps he should wait though; the federal government has devoted a lot of money this year to relief checks.

And it‘s likely the current president won’t be willing to provide funding for it, either.

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