Despite Governor-elect Scott Walker’s strong desire to dedicate Wisconsin’s federal high speed rail money to the state’s highway network, it will stay high speed rail money. Use-it-or-lose-it is the clear message from Washington. That may be sinking in and Walker has now stated his preference to dedicating rail money to the state’s existing service, rather than building new.

Whether or not he’ll be able to do that, it is interesting to look at existing rail ridership in Wisconsin. Forthcoming Brookings analysis of Amtrak passenger trends shows fairly strong growth throughout the state. In fact, from FY 2005 to FY 2009 every Wisconsin station’s growth rate outpaced the national growth of 7.1 percent over the same period. Notable is the relatively new service to Milwaukee’s airport which opened in 2005. Only one other station saw a greater ridership increase over that period and the airport station went from being ranked 167th nationally in terms of total riders to 59th by 2009. The downtown Milwaukee service went from 22nd to 19th during the same time.

Amtrak Boardings and Alightings in Wisconsin, 2005 and 2009

Station

2005

2009

Change

Columbus

14,597

17,338

18.8%

La Crosse

24,397

30,569

25.3%

Milwaukee

474,808

553,475

16.6%

Mitchell Airport

30,415

147,299

384.3%

Portage

6,318

6,965

10.2%

Sturtevant

52,235

71,369

36.6%

Tomah

8,232

10,225

24.2%

Wisconsin Dells

11,289

13,549

20.0%

Total U.S.

50,749,996

54,334,028

7.1%

The question of whether the Milwaukee-Madison route will enjoy similar ridership is harder to answer since there is no service there currently. And parsing out the ridership projections is also no easy task, though the application materials estimate 1.1 million annual passenger trips on the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis route when the system is up and running.

So the existing numbers look decent and there’s good potential for the future. The challenge here is what my colleague Jennifer Bradley has compared to an offer of a free puppy. The state applied for money from the federal government, which was awarded competitively based on its merits. So what to do when a new governor decides that the on-going maintenance demands are more than they want to bear?

No matter how this turns out, the recent dust-up proves an important point: States and governors are still in the driver’s seat when it comes to transportation decisionmaking and project selection. So even with robust federal action, and a framework that puts transportation policy in the service of an American economy driven by exports, powered by low carbon, fueled by innovation, and rich with opportunity, it is still incumbent upon the states to execute.