Stopping high-speed rail in its tracks seems short-sighted

Since I’ve ridden the rails in Asia, Europe and North America, I was really pleased to see some fantastic news earlier this year:

January 28, 2010 – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Wisconsin will receive more than $800 million to build a high-speed rail line carrying passengers between Milwaukee and Madison at 110 mph and recapture a piece of a regional rail system largely abandoned six decades ago. The high-speed line could be up and running as early as 2013, the state says.

* * *

But then came September and a partisan campaign. Former Governor Tommy Thompson said the state can’t afford a high-speed rail line and should use the $810 million in federal dollars earmarked for the project to repair state roadways. This ignores the fact that the money can’t be reallocated, but Thompson said that could change if Republicans take control of Congress in November…

Memory Lane:

October 11, 2001: “Amtrak looks forward to the passage of legislation now pending in Congress that will enable us, working together with states and communities, to finance and build a world-class high speed rail system for America.” (Tommy Thompson, Amtrak Board Chairman)

* * *

Transportation costs the average U.S. household more than 17 percent of income. It’s second only to housing. It’s more than food and more than health care. Having a first class mass transit system is one of the things that separates first class cities from also-rans in an increasingly competitive economy. The amount that Governor-elect Scott Walker is concerned about in annual operating costs is very modest, in relative terms: about $7.5 million a year in a multi-billion-dollar budget. If Wisconsin turns down this incredible economic infusion from the federal government to build an enduring piece of infrastructure that would produce an attractive development corridor between Milwaukee and Madison — (and someday, probably to the Twin Cities) – we may never be able to afford to undo this short-sighted decision. And yet, that is exactly what is happening right now:

* * *

November 5, 2010:

“At the governor’s request, I have asked contractors and consultants working on the high speed rail project to temporarily interrupt their work for a few days,” Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, said Thursday, a day after the companies received brief messages to that same effect. “In light of the election results, our agency will be taking a few days to assess the real world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped.”

* * *

Why would anybody do something like that? Well, the big clue came at the same time the funding was announced last January in the very same Journal Sentinel story that I opened with:

“There have been discussions along this line for 20 years at least,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. “It’s very expensive, and we’ve been having trouble finding money to meet existing needs.”

The challenge in the future will be to find the money for ongoing operations of the high-speed rail system, Thompson said.

* * *

So we’re going to turn down a monster project involving hudreds of jobs upfront that would open up access between our state’s two largest cities and invigorate one of our most promising development corridors. The reason is that some people – like Scott Walker and the TDA – think that having to pay an annual amount that would amount to less than one percent interest, compared to the capital outlay that the feds are providing, is just too much.  It’s like saying you would never want to win the Powerball lottery because of the income taxes.

Don’t expect a free-flowing and fair discussion. There are too many people sitting on their hands because they’ve got to live at least the next four years with Governor Scott Walker and newly elected GOP majorities in both houses of the legislature.

But whether anyone wants to say it or not, the case against the rail project makes no financial sense for Wisconsin.  It’s about people who have vested interests in seeing absolutely everything go to their special interest sector or who are standing by ill-advised campaign talking points. The $800-plus million will not go back to Washington to reduce the deficit. It will not come back to Wisconsin for building roads and bridges. Instead, it will go to other projects in other states.  It will go to people who get it and it will be taken from people who don’t.

New York governor-elect Andrew Cuomo is already asking that high-speed rail money be redirected there, if newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin reject their grants. Cuomo says New York State is ready to spend the money now as a boost to the economy. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation would not comment on Cuomo’s request, but said there is an “incredible demand” for high-speed rail dollars around the country.

“It’s one thing to fantasize about being able to convert this money into highway dollars and simply adopting a scorched-earth strategy of letting someone else have this money that’s dedicated to rail,” said Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore.

Translation: It’s not happening. As Willy Wonka said, “You get nothing.”


UPDATE: Years later, the incredible claim that Gov. Doyle stopped the high-speed rail project; (scroll down to Page 5, Item B.):


10 Responses to “Stopping high-speed rail in its tracks seems short-sighted”

  1. I’d sooner have nothing than a $7.5MM+ bill every year.

    Not that I want the money spent, but the truth of the matter is it makes more sense in NY than it does here.

  2. People not understanding what goes into planning and deploying the infrastructure systems to support our major Wisconsin economic centers going forward is a one-way ticket to living in a state that will have limited opportunities and resources in the future.

  3. People DO understand:
    that the money from the Feds isn’t free money. It is OUR money.
    and, since the Feds have a deficit, our children and grandchildren get the bill.
    that this project benefits southern Wisconsin, period.
    that “we” already opened up an Interstate highway between Madison and Milwaukee.

    • Republican don’t understand that the tax brake for the rich has to be paid from our children too, and the same is with wrong wars. This money is lost and can not help us with our infrastructure. Only a country with a good infrastructure can have a good economy and can lead in the world. This is investing in our children’s future.

  4. Sorry, Jim, but I don’t agree. Southern Wisconsin is either going to be the balloon that takes us all up or the anchor that drags us all down. If you think you don’t have a stake in the success of Milwaukee, Madison and southeastern Wisconsin, then you’re not facing reality.

  5. You do understand that the proposed train line is nothing like European and Asian high speed rail, correct? In order to have true high speed rail, new single-use track would have to be laid. The existing corridor would have to be widened, new land appropriated, and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions more would have to be spent. This plan is, at best, a 60mph alternative to driving.

  6. Yes, I understand that in the immediate future, there are some technical issues with track that limit the potential. But let me also say that I drove from downtown Madison to Mitchell Airport the other day and 60 mph with a few stops along the way would have been an erotic fantasy, by comparison.

  7. Like you … I have spent much time globe-trotting with a great deal of time in Europe. And although their mass transit tends to be a picture of great planning and efficiency, the US is not Europe.

    Americans enjoy our freedoms… and we love our cars. Right or wrong, I think we all understand that benefits to society and the environment good public transit has, however, I want to leave when I want to leave and I want to arrive when I want to arrive… and to do that.. need my own personal transportation.

    I think you will not see support for projects such as these until Americans in general become okay with coming and going on someone elses pre-determined schedule… and that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

    (and I openly admit I am part of the problem – when living in Madison I took the bus for about 2 months before I couldn’t take living on someone elses schedule any more and starting driving to class, accepting the nightmare that is on-campus parking)

  8. I would be the first to agree that the national rail plan is a strategy and culture eats strategy for lunch. However, it IS a strategy and a modern system can and will have an impact on people’s choices. This project is a critical link in a much bigger picture. A Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque-Twin Cities routing is not good for Wisconsin in either the short or the long term.

    Scott Walker is not going to change the national strategy. About all he can do is deprive Wisconsin from benefitting from an $810 million project now and send the money to other states that will buy in (as close as Illinois.) In addition, it will likely cost Wisconsin tens of millions of dollars to finance his intransigence. The ROI isn’t really there for such a pound-foolish approach, but being consistent can sometimes seem more important to people than being right or wrong.

    People need to face reality. Rewarding Ohio and Wisconsin for going red by buckling to help Walker and Kasich fulfill their ill-advised campaign promises is neither good politics nor good policy, so the money will not be re-purposed for other transportation projects in those states.

  9. Jim, I to disagree. There are some critical questions about this rail line and its affects. There are people in places like Columbus and Portage that are concerned. Amtrak’ Empire Builder passes these cities. People in those areas are wondering if they are going to lose the passenger rail service that they do have.

    Secondly, if passenger rail service could be proven profitable, Canadian National or the other remaining freight lines would be doing it. This does not mean that government should finance something that the private sector is unwilling to make an investment in. Hi-speed rail service could be like the SST of this day.

    As a member of the Rails To Trails Conservancy, I am all for alternative means of transportation. But there has to be a ground swell of public support for this.

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