Wisconsin lawmakers OK purchase of high-speed trains

| 8/7/2009

Wisconsin lawmakers are moving forward with a controversial purchase of high-speed trains from a Spanish company.

In a party line 11-4 vote, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has voted to spend $47.1 million to buy two trains from Patentes Talgo of Spain. The panel’s 11 Democrats endorsed the purchase while the four Republicans were opposed because the state did not seek competitive bids.

In March, Gov. Jim Doyle met with Talgo officials in Spain and he rode the company’s trains. The Spanish government paid for the trip.

Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, didn’t pull any punches after the vote in describing her thoughts about the Democratic governor’s tour of Spain.

“If this isn’t the definition of a sweetheart deal, I don’t know what is,” Vos said in a released statement. “The governor shouldn’t be able to simply enter into contracts with whomever he pleases just because he is on a Spanish-funded trip.”

A 12-year-old law exempts state rail contracts from normal bidding rules. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, other companies had expressed an interest in building the trains but only Talgo provided the state a detailed proposal.

Democrats say the purchase will generate jobs and put the state in prime position to compete for some of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects. If Wisconsin gets a share of the funding, the state has the option to buy two more trains from the Spanish company.

The action by the budget committee is final. The full Legislature will not vote on the issue.

The state will issue bonds to cover the expense of the trains’ purchase, which are expected to be running by 2011.

Advocates say the state’s existing freight lines can accommodate the trains, rather than needing to have the lines straightened at a substantial cost to the state.

The two 14-car train sets will be used for Amtrak’s Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line. If stimulus money is routed to the state, two more train sets would be added for a proposed Milwaukee-to-Madison line that could be running by 2013.

To attract riders, the new trains will offer amenities currently not available on the Hiawatha line. Improved seating and Wi-Fi service are planned with the possibility of adding bicycle racks.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Wisconsin in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.