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Jim Doyle: High-Speed Rail Decision Will Be Left To Scott Walker, Republican Successor For Governor, Who Has Vowed To Kill It

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MADISON, Wis. — High-speed rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio appear close to derailment, with Wisconsin's outgoing governor saying Monday he'll leave the future of his state's project to his Republican successor, who has vowed to kill it, and Ohio's incoming governor saying again he plans scrap his state's project.

Jim Doyle, Wisconsin's outgoing Democratic governor, told The Associated Press that although he thinks a high-speed rail line to connect Milwaukee with Madison is a good idea, he feels obligated to leave the project's future up to Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker.

Minutes after Doyle made his comments, Walker said he remains opposed to the $810 million project.

"My position remains the same," Walker said. "I don't see anything that would change my mind."

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sent a letter to Walker dated Monday that said unless the governor-elect changed his position, "we plan to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Wisconsin's project so that we do not waste taxpayers' money."

In Ohio, meanwhile, incoming Republican Gov. John Kasich wrote to outgoing Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland on Monday asking him to immediately cancel all passenger rail contracts to save taxpayer money.

Kasich sent letters to both Strickland and President Barack Obama telling them he doesn't plan to support developing a passenger line connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

"As you are aware, I am opposed to this program and will terminate it upon taking office," Kasich wrote Strickland. "Given that, I am sure that you will agree that it would simply be wasteful to spend any additional money on this program. At a time when Ohio is facing an approximately $8 billion budget shortfall, every step should be taken to eliminate waste and prevent unnecessary spending."

Kasich asked the president to be allowed to use the state's $400 million rail allocation for other things. He said if that's not possible, the federal government should keep the money to help reduce the federal deficit.

Wisconsin's Walker made opposing the Milwaukee-Madison rail project a key part of his successful campaign against his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who supported it.

While building the line would be paid for with federal stimulus money, Walker objected to the state being on the hook for up to $7.5 million a year in ongoing operational costs. Doyle said he would expect about 80 percent of that to also be paid by the federal government.

"For us the bottom line is I don't believe long-term the state taxpayers can afford to have the high speed line between Milwaukee and Madison," Walker said.

Walker said the money would be better spent repairing roads and bridges, but LaHood said in his letter that the money could not be used for any purpose other than rail.

Proponents of the Wisconsin project argue that it doesn't make sense to stop a project expected to create 5,500 construction jobs during the next three years and 55 permanent jobs after it's up and running.

Doyle, who last week put the project on hold, said he still thinks it is a good idea. Stopping it will cost Wisconsin $14.25 million in money already spent, and put the state on the hook for about $83 million in upgrades to the existing line, the governor said. It also would result in more than 400 people currently working on the project being put out of work, mostly from private contractors, Doyle said.

But after Walker won election last week, Doyle said the prudent thing to do was to leave the project's future up to him.

"I could play brinksmanship with this issue and I could just plow forward and put people out at job sites," Doyle said. "We could spend or obligate hundreds of millions of dollars between now and the time I leave office. And while obviously part of me says, 'Just do that,' I really have to actually consider what the practical consequences of this are."

The state could spend between $250 million and $300 million before Walker takes over Jan. 3, Doyle said. But moving ahead could result in future lawsuits, force layoffs of people not yet hired, and cause undue disruption, Doyle said.

"I don't think that's in anybody's best interest," he said.

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who supports the train, said Monday he still didn't think the project was dead. Cieslewicz said he thinks Walker's operating cost concerns could be addressed if an entity other than the state could be found to pick up the bill.

Barrett said Doyle was taking a "prudent approach" to the issue but he was very concerned about the state and city losing thousands of jobs.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has said the money will go to other states if Wisconsin doesn't want it.

Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo in New York already sent the Department of Transportation a letter saying his state will be glad to use Wisconsin's and Ohio's rail money if the states scrap their projects. And trainmaker Talgo Inc. said it couldn't promise it will stay in Milwaukee or create the 125 jobs it had projected if Wisconsin bails on the project.

Doyle was an outspoken supporter of the line, which he said would be a key economic development tool linking Wisconsin's largest cities with Chicago and one day possibly extending north and west to the Twin Cities. The Madison train station was to be named after Doyle, who is leaving the governor's office after deciding not to seek a third term.

Doyle, who was meeting privately with Walker later Monday, said he wouldn't push the issue with him.

"Obviously I would love to see the train go forward," Doyle said. "I'm not going to give advice. ... My job isn't to tell him how to be governor."

In Ohio, Strickland's office said research on the state's high-speed rail project has many uses and that the governor does not plan to stop the work before leaving office. Spokeswoman Kelly Schlissberg said the contract is already executed and the study and planning work is well under way.

"Even for those who would send these resources and 16,000 Ohio jobs to New York or some other state, there is nothing to fear from obtaining the good information that this study will provide to policy makers in the near term as well as the long term," she said. "So even if the governor-elect chooses not to support rail when he takes office, future governors or legislators with a vision for a modern Ohio will have better information as a result of this work."

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Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smith in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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