By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Apr 01, 2011 at 1:06 AM

MINNEAPOLIS -- Already one-third of the way along in the construction process, the state of Minnesota has hit a snag in its deployment of an interstate high-speed rail system.

Though the routes that mirror the freeways connect with North Dakota to the west and Iowa to the south, the railway is unable to provide direct traffic to Illinois because Wisconsin opted out of federal funding -- and the route's eastern connection stops at Lakeland, Minn.

So Minnesota Dept. of Transportation officials have invoked an obscure, yet inventive solution to bypass Wisconsin en route to Waukegan, Ill. Starting next month, they will begin tunneling under Wisconsin to build an ambitious underground high-speed rail system.

"It's never been done before, that's for sure," said Rolf Olgassen, the project's chief engineer in Eden Prairie. "Our inspiration is the Chunnel between England and France, but this is far more complex."

It's complex because unlike the Channel Tunnel, which is 32 miles long and a mere 150 feet under the seabed, this system will span approximately 363 miles and will sit 2,100 feet below the surface.

The $3 billion project will be financed entirely with the federal funds that Wisconsin and Florida returned to the government, but Minnesota will keep all the revenue from its riders. When completed, the trip will take two hours, and Olgassen says Wisconsinites will barely know the train has gone under them.

"Other than obvious disruption of the subsoil and everything above it -- including the water table -- this railway will be built without any effect, cooperation or participation from Wisconsin," he says. "It won't cost your state a penny ... up front, anyway."

The project makes use of a legal loophole that declares that a state's property extends 2,000 feet above and below the earth. Because the railway will be built 100 feet below that line -- "we had to have wiggle room for any immovable obstacles," says Olgassen -- the planned route is fair game.

In Madison, Gov. Scott Walker expressed outrage at the plan, but acknowledged he has no jurisdiction in the federal law that allows for this kind of deep tunneling.

"During my campaign, I promised that no Wisconsin dollars would be wasted on high-speed rail, and I returned federal money because this boondoggle would ultimately cost our state hundreds of dollars annually in upkeep, while only bringing in millions of dollars of new business investment and a few hundred jobs," said Walker in an interview with WTMJ-AM's Charlie Sykes.

"But Minnesota's plan will destroy hundreds of miles of property above ground, as the tunneling process causes the earth to bulge and buckle," he said. "All that displaced dirt has to go somewhere, and we will experience hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. I'm outraged."

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, however, were delighted that this project will move forward, and celebrated with a joint balloon ride and signing ceremony 2,100 feet over Tomah, the approximate midway point of the new rail system that will mirror the path of I-94.

The balloon ride was symbolic, hovering just above Wisconsin's legal jurisdiction and near the Elroy home of former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. A confused and intoxicated Thompson apparently thought the balloon was the first wave of a terrorist invasion and fired three shotgun rounds in the air before he was restrained and handed another brandy Old Fashioned.

Neither Dayton nor Emmanuel were harmed in the incident.

When it's completed in 2014, Wisconsinites won't be easily able to ride this train route. There will not be any stops in the state, and both Illinois and Minnesota will collect a new $18 car toll at their borders to pay for free wi-fi for the train's riders.

"Hey, this was hardly our plan," said Minnesota Deputy Secretary of Commerce Sven Svenson. "We were perfectly happy doing this above ground, even including free train vouchers for your residents to visit the Mall of America and Target Field. But when we floated the idea to then Governor-elect Walker, he replied with a one-line email telling us that Brett Favre sucks."

Added Svenson, "Unfortunately for all of you Tea Party whackjobs in fly-over -- and now dig-under -- country, we had to move on without you."