Patti Wenzel

High-speed rail stalls in Wisconsin

By - Nov 8th, 2010 04:00 am
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No matter where you stand on the Milwaukee to Madison high speed train, the last eight days have sped by like a runaway train on a track full of hairpin curves.

First, Jim Doyle’s administration signed contracts obligating the state to take all of the $810 million in federal funds connected to the project. Next, voters elected Scott Walker to the governorship, who campaigned for years against the train, and sent GOP majorities to both houses in Madison and to the House of Representatives in Washington.

Reading the tea leaves, the Doyle administration sends a message to the contractors involved to stop all work on the train, for now. (Late Monday, Nov. 8th, Doyle decided to keep the pause button on indefinitely).Talgo, the Spanish trainmaker recruited by Tom Barrett in his effort to bring jobs to Milwaukee, is hinting at leaving the state if the train isn’t built, and now, New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo has offered to take the money off our hands to develop a high-speed “Erie Canal” in his state.

So what the heck is happening? Will we have a train or not?

To paraphrase a famous coroner, the train is not only merely dead – it is really, most sincerely dead! Doyle’s stunt last week with the contracts was a last ditch effort to call the voters’ bluff. The voters didn’t buy it and sent Walker to Madison.

The change in Washington is also a dagger in the heart of President Obama’s vision of nation rail transport. In this format, it’s dead. Florida Republican John Mica is slated to chair the House transportation committee, and I doubt he has changed his tune about a high speed train with a top speed lower than 80 mph. He told Gov. Doyle that very thing this past April, and in his new role Mica will have great influence over the future of the project.

The ascension of Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald to leadership of the state assembly and senate have also killed the train. Both have publicly said they will not obligate state taxpayers to the annual operating costs of this project when the state is facing a $2.7 billion deficit and other more pressing transportation needs.

The second half of Walker’s election promise is also looking good; to convert the train funding to road and bridge money to rebuild and expand our highways. With a state congressional delegation now firmly in the Republican majority, including the future chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, I think Obama will have to compromise with the states on how to use federal transportation funds.

So, no train in our future. The majority of citizens see it as a waste of money that neither the country nor Wisconsin definitely have. We have pressing problems – a $14 trillion federal debt, a $2.7 billion state budget deficit, loans with China up to our eyeballs and millions of people out of work.

Without this albatross hanging around Wisconsin’s neck, Walker, the assembly and senate, and Washington can get to work on those problems. And maybe they can figure out how to fund the buses we already have.

Categories: Commentary

0 thoughts on “High-speed rail stalls in Wisconsin”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I fear that you’re right, Patti. It doesn’t look at all good for the state and nation to catch up with the rest of the world in the use of trains.
    I speak as an unabashed passenger train fan. I can describe wondrous train travels in Europe and Asia, dining on the Orient Express, a memorable overnight trip with the Uzbek Army Band, the ride from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, a fascinating trip on a 3rd Class Spanish train with goats and chickens in the same car… Oh, I’ve loved it!
    And we all know – or should – that trains are the most energy efficient way of moving freight or people around the landscape, and we must at least start to think about that.
    But we are confronting one of Americans’ most enduring love affairs – with their car! And now we are in the situation of political power going to the party that panders to those attitudes. Things are not looking good for rational thinking…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Houston: Overbuilt freeways for 40 years. Traffic still clogged. Gave up and started building trains.

    LA: Overbuilt freeways for 60 years, traffic still clogged. Started building trains.

    St. Louis: Overbuilt freeways for 50 years, traffic still clogged, started building trains.

    Atlanta: Overbuilt freeways for 50 years, didn’t build trains, worst traffic congestion in the country.

    Milwaukee: Still clueless after 50 years of freeway building.

    But it’s nice for the contractors, though, even the ones convicted of price-fixing. Because freeways are forever, in terms of billion-dollar maintenance. And who doesn’t love that oily, salty, polluted runnoff? Mmmm=mmm good in our drinking water.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It is nice to see that reality is taking place over idealism. MKE cannot be compared to any large metropolises, sorry. The cost to maintain the train system wouldn’t justify it here. Let alone the lack of riders. The USA is not logistically built the way Europe is. Come to think of it, the USA isn’t even founded like Europe is. What makes so many think that Europe knows better on all subject levels? I’ve been to Europe and the trains are wonderful over there, in fact I love taking the trains there. But one cannot compare the use of rail in Europe to the use of rail in the USA, at least not logically. I have also been to Houston and Atlanta, and L.A. The pure size of those cities is what causes the traffic jams. Milwaukee is no where near becoming that size. The larger the city the more traffic problems. In fact Chicago and NYC have traffic problems yet they also have some type of rail line as well. Again, I love taking NYC’s subway. But in this state it is not needed.
    My largest problem with this subject is that I do not understand that the ones who are for this rail system always like to make it into a political issue. This issue should have zero to do with politics.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m posting this from a friend who’s a train historian and his take on the rail line

    “There used to be two trains that ran between Milwaukee and St Lou in the late 70s, and both were dropped because of poor ridership. There also used to be a train that ran from Watertown to Milwaukee on roughly the same schedule as this proposed train. It was called the Cannonball. It was not considered a an “intercity train,” so Amtrak did not pick it up, and the Milwaukee Road got stuck running it at a loss, despite state subsidy, until they were finally given permission to drop the train in the mid 70s after lobbying the ICC for 23 years to do so. No one rode that train either. If you can honestly say that this train will be a success, I’d like to know the reasons why? Following will be some reasons why it will not.

    Reason #1. The route chosen for this train is ridiculous. If you are going to have a commuter train, at least make the train run to an area where it will be useful to its riders. Milwaukee’s station is a fine eastern terminus, but the Madison Airport? Seriously? Madison used to be served by quite a few trains like the Varsity and Sioux, other unnamed trains. Chicago and Northwestern and the Milwaukee Road had good stations in Madison back in the day, but now they are unusable because of Nimby’s and urban sprawl. If you look at Google Maps, you can that there are two other options for routing the trains much closer to civilization, but it would take much more upgrading of existing routes, and cause more leftist Nimby panic in the area. Everyone is for bike lanes until the extra 4 feet for the easement comes out of your front yard. We’ll see how these guys like high speed rail when Hulcher or RJ Corman come knocking on their door for permission to use their yard as a place to store a backhoe, or a ballast tamper.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Reason#2 Unsustainability. Want to know why Cook County has the highest sales tax in the country? METRA and the CTA have a world class commuter rail network, but no way of covering the cost through ridership. Are there routes that are underutilized and are they upgrading equipment too quickly? Yes, but their ridership is much higher than ours will be on a passenger mile basis. Why? See above. Their trains go somewhere. CTA has an already bloated budget which is perpetually in the REd, and they have a great ridership. We have none of there things. We have no budget for existing maintenance, equipment renewal, salaries, etc. The current estimates for ridership far pale what the passenger mile total of what Chicago is, so how in the hell is this even going to come close to paying for itself. The state will have to pick p all of the remaining costs for this boondoggle. I’d like to see them try and get a maintenance subsidy from Canadian Pacific and/or Wisconsin Southern?

    Reason #3. This will not spur economic development. This is the biggest lie I’ve ever heard, except the you can keep your doctor thing. What economic development will this spur? Are we talking a Subway in the station? Look at the new Sturtevant station. Look at the Metra station in Kenosha. What economic development is happening at any railway station in Wisconsin except for that BBQ restaurant in Amtrak’s La Crosse depot? If this is a way to try to lure industry to locate on the existing right a ways, I’d like to know why they would decide to do this now, considering that the majority of this rail line has already been in service since 1871. No that is not a typo. There may be a chance that the upgrade to the tracks between Madison and Watertown on the WSOR line may be inviting to a smaller manufacturing company, but that will remain to be seen. Cutting taxes is a better way to induce an industry to move to your state, instead of telling them you are going to upgrade their railroad siding for them. They could go South for that for 1/2 the price, and 1/4 the trouble.

    Reason#4. While I have said this many times already. This is the most important. NO ONE WILL RIDE IT. This is self evident. If it is not, you may want to pick up a quick refresher course on logistics form Devry, and cross reference it from the latest episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. Shit, no one rides that train, and Ringo Starr is the conductor.

    Honestly, there won’t be too much actual construction as far as I can tell. Most of the rails already exist. They will need to be brought up to passenger train standards. It will be a mess. The ironic thing is that the tracks between Milwaukee and Watertown are owned by the Canadian Pacific. During a downturn in business, the CP’s predecessor, actually took out the second main line track. This was to save maint. costs. Now they may have to reinstall the 2nd main at enormous costs, just for a stupid passenger train. You won’t hear CP complain, as they get a free capacity upgrade, even though it may mess with their scheduling.”

  6. Anonymous says:

    John, your “rational thinking” is you have a hard on for trains.How energy efficient is it if no one is riding the trains? I can drive my suv from Milw to Madison and back cheaper than the train will cost. How are you going to sell people on that?

  7. Anonymous says:

    So now Scott Walker needs to create 250,400 jobs to keep his campaign pledge. Goody.

  8. Anonymous says:

    20+ years from now, what kind of fuel or resources will be sustainable? Moving people forward with efficiency other than relying on oil to get us there seems to be much kinder to our environment. Considering the alternative, the proposed link to Madison makes sense!

  9. Anonymous says:

    The money is to be used for rail only. The Feds will not change the designation for the money and fund road repairs, they have already made that quite clear! The money will go elsewhere and so will jobs. Part of that money is meant for repair to rails that are currently used for shipping, not just passengers!
    So, the creation of 400+ jobs doesn’t matter in this economy? Walker seems to be doing the opposite of what he promised already.
    What will we do when gas goes up to $5/gallon and more? I’m already trying to figure out how to drive less with gas at $3/gallon! Well, I guess more of us will be riding bikes instead of riding trains, but it’s gonna be a really long ride to Madison and even longer to Minneapolis. Thank goodness the Common Council voted to add more designated bike lanes!
    I also seem to recall that “nobody” would ever use the bike racks on the busses either, and almost every time I see a bus I see a bike on the rack.
    Let’s continue to be short sighted and move backward instead of forward!

  10. Anonymous says:

    “…according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Republican congressman from Illinois, “The bottom line is that high-speed rail is a national program that will connect the country, spur economic development and bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S. It will also transform transportation in America, much like the Interstate highway system did under President Eisenhower.”

    And as noted in a recently released report from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the result of a September 2009 conference co-chaired by Bush transportation secretaries Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner, “The United States can’t compete successfully in the 21st century with a 20th century transportation infrastructure — especially when its chief trading partners, including not only the advanced economies of Western Europe and Southeast Asia but also rapidly developing countries like China, are making significant investments in cutting-edge transportation technologies and systems.” This could lead, the report said, to “a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.”

    Much of the Republican opposition points to maintenance and upkeep costs but as champion blogger John Cole notes, “Turning down a billion dollar train because you will have to pay 8 million a year in maintenance is like giving away a free car because you might have to one day buy windshield wiper fluid.”

    That, friends, is something else this year’s election was all about: the triumph of shortsighted thinking over facing up to the long range difficult problems that threaten our future. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy two years…” -Michael Winship, senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Who did the creative cut and paste graphics for this article? Nice job.

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