The high-speed rail project that was supposed to connect Madison to Milwaukee and beyond had Madisonians thinking grand. But with Gov.-elect Scott Walker intent on killing the $810 million project, those dreams are being crushed.
"This is an amazing opportunity to be connected as a region," says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. "[It would] really put us on the map in terms of being connected to the rest of this world."
The train station, slated for the Department of Administration building on West Wilson Street, would transform downtown, acting as a catalyst for economic development and serving as a hub for a public market at the Government East parking ramp, a new hotel, commuter rail and much, much more.
DMI is now helping organize a letter campaign to Walker in hopes of changing his mind. "Transportation is everything," says Schmitz. "It's so important. We can't function and exist and move forward as an island."
Walker's move took many people by surprise. "I think most of us were under the impression there was little he could do to kill [the train] and [his pledge to do so] was political rhetoric," says Ald. Mike Verveer. "Obviously, that's not the case. It's pretty depressing to those of us who were very enthusiastic about the train coming."
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz hasn't given up on the project, hoping Walker can be persuaded to change course. "It would be a terrible mistake to turn down over $800 million of federal money," he says, noting that the costs to operate a train are "a fraction of a percent of the Department of Transportation's whole budget."
In September, the city hired George Austin - former planning director and go-to guy for big projects (Monona Terrace, Overture Center, UW Institutes for Discovery) - to coordinate planning around the station. Austin is still working on the project, and the city still has a $950,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a multi-modal transportation project, including a public market and parking lot.
But if the train dies, Cieslewicz admits, the city would have to "do some reevaluating."
"Short answer is, I don't know," says Cieslewicz of this planning process. "We still need a hotel. I still think the public market is a good idea. And we still have to do something with the parking ramp there."
Mahoney vs. the judges
A comment in an Isthmus election story has exposed a major rift between Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Dane County judges over the sheriff's policy of using electronic monitoring to house some inmates in their homes.
The article ("A Shootout for Dane County Sheriff, 10/15/10) noted that Mahoney's Republican challenger, Shawn Haney, accused him of relaxing standards for who is allowed out on electronic monitoring, instead of being kept in jail. Mahoney defended the program, saying judges decide who can participate.
That claim drew a sharp response from the judges. A letter signed by Chief Judge Bill Foust and backed by 14 other judges (the entire Dane County roster, except Amy Smith and Juan Colas) calls Mahoney's representation "simply not correct." The judges say the sheriff is releasing people convicted of offenses like repeat drunk driving against their wishes.
"The Dane County judges and others believe that mandatory incarceration in jail for repeat drunk driving is an important response to individuals who continue to put our community at jeopardy," says the letter (see here). "Sheriff Mahoney disagrees."
Mahoney says he only uses electronic monitoring for certain inmates who have been sentenced with Huber privileges, which allow them to leave jail for work, school, medical or family reasons.
"If you don't want them out at all, don't give them Huber," Mahoney says. He adds that if a judge gives a split sentence, where Huber privileges kick in only after a certain time, he would respect that and keep inmates in jail until then.
Circuit Court Judge Sarah O'Brien, a prime mover behind the letter, says judges give Huber privileges so inmates can work to pay child support and get treatment. But she says Mahoney "uses his own screening measures to decide who goes to [electronic monitoring]" that are more liberal than the judges would like.
As the judges' letter says, "Dane County judges believe that, as a rule, jail sentences should be spent in jail, and not at home on electronic monitoring."
A tale of two bars
Madison has taken action against two bars that have had a string of police calls in the past year. But some wonder whether the city is applying the same standards (see The Daily Page Forum discussion).
At R Place, 1821 S. Park St., the city is looking to pull the liquor license. With Wiggies Bar, 1901 Aberg Ave., owned by Dane County Supv. Dave Wiganowsky, the police have devised a security plan to deal with problems, which Wiganowky is appealing.
Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy denies Wiggies has gotten special treatment, saying, "The situation is not identical."
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 17 at R Place, Zilavy says, there were 157 police calls, including nine for weapons violations: five involving a gun and four with knives. Between Nov. 6, 2009, and this Oct. 27, there have been 131 calls at Wiggies, only two of which involved a weapon.
"The calls for service are not in and of themselves a significant thing, but they're what alert us to look deeper," she says, adding that the security plan devised for Wiggies is very similar to one created for R Place earlier.