Three of the five leading gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota and Wisconsin support the concept of high-speed rail service between Madison and the Twin Cities, but the Republican candidate in each race is withholding his backing.
The candidates shared their views on high-speed rail and tax reciprocity recently.
Democrats Mark Dayton in Minnesota and Tom Barrett in Wisconsin offer the most ardent support and tout the economic benefits such a line could bring to both states.
“I think it’s been proven that there’s a lot of economic development along rail lines,” Dayton said.
Minnesota Independence Party candidate Tom Horner said the states should continue preliminary study work and investigation because of the potential benefits.
“Let’s spend a little bit of money,” on that work, he said. “In general, we need to start to make the investment, studying and evaluating.”
But Minnesota Republican candidate Tom Emmer said he would not offer an opinion on high-speed until seeing results from an in-progress study.
His Wisconsin counterpart, Scott Walker, has incorporated his opposition to all high-speed projects, most notably a proposed Milwaukee-to-Madison line, as a central part of his campaign.
“I think we have higher transportation needs,” he said. “We have literally roads and bridges that are crumbling today.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation received a $600,000 federal planning grant in January to cover half the cost of a preliminary study examining possible routes between Madison and the Twin Cities. Officials are considering lines that would run through Eau Claire or La Crosse, Wis., with the second route passing through either Winona or Rochester, Minn.
But the bulk of that study hasn’t yet been completed as the states negotiate with the Federal Railroad Administration on the scope of the work, said Dan Krom, director of the MnDOT office of Passenger Rail. The department will likely send out a request for proposals later this month for a consultant to do the work, with preferred route indicated by the spring, he said.
That would leave the project positioned to apply for about $50 million in federal funding in the summer, Krom said. The money would be used to perform in-depth environmental studies of the preferred routes and other additional preliminary work.
Walker would be opposed to even requesting additional funding for the high-speed rail project, he said, citing existing infrastructure needs.
“If we’re going to ask for any money for infrastructure from the federal government, I want it going toward” those needs, he said.
The Republican’s stance falls in line with his opposition to plans to establish high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison, a plan he’s repeatedly called a “boondoggle” and started a website, notrain.com, to oppose.
Emmer didn’t dismiss the idea of high-speed rail, but stressed that he would need to see the results of that preliminary study before making a decision of whether to apply for additional funding.
“We need to look at the functionality,” he said. “If it makes sense, I think you have to look at (the project).”
Any federal funding would require at least a 20 percent local match, which even the backing candidates acknowledged would require planning.
Dayton suggested such matching funds could be part of a state bonding bill. The power of that money to create jobs would be multiplied by the federal funding, if secured, and would allow the states to pursue this “great opportunity,” the Democrat said.
“Just the project itself, there’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done,” Dayton said, referring to construction jobs that would be created. “I think if this goes on the back burner, I think we’re going to have to lose the opportunity.”
Establishing a faster passenger rail system in the Midwest would create 57,000 new jobs and support another 15,000 during the 10 years it is under construction, according to a report issued last month by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, which supports establishing high-speed rail.
That kind of job creation potential is a leading reason Democrat Barrett also supports the project, a campaign spokesman said. The economic development the route would spur would more than make up for the portion of operating costs not covered by riders’ fares, said Phil Walzak, communications director for Barrett’s campaign.
The states can pursue high-speed rail while still addressing other infrastructure needs, Walzak and other backers said.
“Just because you support high-speed rail doesn’t mean you’re against roads,” he said. “It’s about a balance.”
A well-balanced transportation system is part of Horner’s vision for Minnesota. He supports continuing the preliminary work to asses high-speed routes to see if it can be a piece of that system, he said.
“Again it would have to be affordable,” he said. “It would have to be something that makes economic sense.”
But a desire to study that possibility doesn’t mean his focus would leave what the state has now, Horner said.
“The first dollars would still be spent on roads and bridges ... investing in the current infrastructure,” he said. “We can make investments in evaluating where rail fits in. Let’s hope it’s not an either-or.”
A push to re-establish tax reciprocity has little support from leading Minnesota gubernatorial candidates, though their Wisconsin counterparts back the move.
Minnesota and Wisconsin had a reciprocity agreement in place for more than 40 years that allowed taxpayers living in one state and working in the other to file a single tax return. The arrangement ended for 2010, a move that affected thousands of residents on both sides of the border, including in the Winona and La Crosse, Wis., areas.
The three Minnesota candidates indicated little interest in re-establishing the agreement, though they said the issue could be examined further.
Their Wisconsin counterparts voiced support for reciprocity, saying the arrangement is a matter of fairness for those residents.
“We need to make it possible for people to live in one state and work in another and not be at a tax disadvantage,” Republican candidate Scott Walker said.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended the arrangement after an agreement to speed up Wisconsin’s payments fell through.
State leaders then turned down a proposal by Wisconsin to pay $90 million over 18 months, saying the state would get $131 million by taxing Wisconsin residents who work in Minnesota directly.
DFL candidate Mark Dayton cited those economic impacts in saying he supported Pawlenty’s move.
“Wisconsin was not holding its side of the bargain,” Dayton said, though he noted he would be willing to sit down with Wisconsin’s next governor to discuss the issue.
Independence Party candidate Tom Horner said the current system should remain for the time being, but that the issue warrants further study. Horner expanded on that idea by calling for a re-examination of Minnesota’s entire tax system with an eye toward simplicity.
The two Wisconsin gubernatorial candidates more actively support putting reciprocity back into place, saying the agreement could also be an example of the state working collaboratively with its neighbors. Both campaigns also said Wisconsin could fix the financial issues that Pawlenty cited when he ended the arrangement.
“It could be good for the people in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” said Phil Walzak, communications director for Democratic candidate Tom Barrett. “Certainly, there are ways to fix it and craft it in a way to ensure equal and fair treatment.”