Longtime Milwaukee journalist and now-turned blogger James Rowen pointed out the other day that Wisconsin Republicans have now killed three proposed train systems in Wisconsin.
First there was the jettisoning of a plan in 1997 for a light-rail system between Milwaukee and suburban Waukesha County. Rowen blames then-Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and the GOP-dominated Waukesha County government for securing its demise.
Then there was Scott Walker’s incredibly misinformed decision earlier this year to kill any chance of linking Madison to a planned nationwide high-speed rail system by throwing away $860 million in federal funds that would have paid for it.
And most recently, there was the dropping of plans for a commuter rail line that would have connected Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha, primarily because of legislative GOP naysayers.
“All of these projects would have employed train equipment makers, mechanics, and engineers. Thousands of workers would have been hired to clear right-of-way, upgrade or lay track, and business would have located, expanded and thrived, along with housing development, around stations and on the routes,” he said. “In a state with persistent unemployment, purportedly opened for business by Walker — except for any job related to a train.”
Why Republicans have morphed into anti-train zealots is puzzling, although Rowen insists that in the Milwaukee area a lot of it has to do with silk-stocking suburbs fearing that train travel will allow “those people” from the inner city easy entry into their communities. This irrational fear is fed by Milwaukee’s toxic talk radio, he believes.
Thanks to my now-retired colleague Ron McCrea, I’ve come across another attempt to explain this strange Republican anti-train phenomenon. An associate editor of the blog “AlterNet,” Sarah Jaffe, has five theories.
First, improved passenger rail requires big infrastructure and, hence, leaves a legacy. This legacy of a viable high-speed American rail system, of course, would belong to President Obama. And, heaven knows, Obama can’t be credited with anything.
Second, it would provide union jobs, which doesn’t fit at all with the Republican war against labor unions that is being waged so effectively by the party’s elected state governors, including our infamous Scott Walker.
Third, trains are viewed as promoting “socialism” because people riding together — as conservative columnist George Will put it — diminishes American individualism. People riding alone in their cars makes people resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make, Will has written.
Fourth is the urban vs. rural issue, which is essentially Rowen’s theory. Jaffe quotes CNN’s Steven Harrod, who says that many critics of passenger rail emotionally identify it as an enabler of cultural values they fear.
“Urban vs. rural. People of color vs. white people. Public investment of any kind has been branded by the conservative movement as a way for the government to take away money from hardworking, independent (white) people and give handouts to freeloaders, usually seen as nonwhite people,” she writes.
And fifth, according to Jaffe, is the fear that high-speed rail will change our lifestyles — and, by golly, we like our lifestyles!
“Conservatives who fear changes brought about by high-speed rail aren’t wrong, of course, that transportation will change us,” Jaffe adds. “The shape of our cities and suburbs for the past 50 years or more has been largely because of transportation. Without cars, we’d never have had suburbs, let alone exurbs.”
If Obama succeeded in making decent passenger rail accessible to 80 percent of the U.S. in the next 25 years, it would become time to encourage urban density rather than suburban sprawl, which, in turn, would bring about a shift from cars regardless of economic class.
Right-wingers don’t like that notion at all because, in their view, that promotes environmental awareness, energy savings and other concerns normally associated with liberalism.
Conservatives, particularly here in Wisconsin, like to claim their opposition to rail has nothing to do with anything other than saving money. If that were true, though, how come they don’t blink an eye at spending hundreds of billions on sweeping new intersections, more and wider highways, and expensive sound barriers on busy freeways that generate too much noise for their suburban neighbors?
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org