Last Dec. 9, exactly a year ago, federal officials redirected $810 million in transportation funding that Gov. Scott Walker had rejected to improve Wisconsin's rail system.
That rejection may go down as one of the biggest political goofs in state history.
Walker had campaigned against the proposed Madison-Milwaukee passenger train project, saying it represented "runaway government spending" and would cost state taxpayers in the long run.
"I'm going to stop that boondoggle train to Madison" became a rallying cry for Walker, whose own polling showed that dissing Madison — and the train — was a winning issue despite the wider long-term implications for the state's transportation system.
Walker played that high-stakes gamble throughout the race, saying he could persuade Congress to redirect the money to fix Wisconsin's highways or bridges.
But after the election, when it became obvious the Obama administration was going to send the rail funds to other states, Walker had to fall on his sword to save face. That prompted the Los Angeles Times to famously write "Thanks a billion, cheeseheads" after the money was sent instead to California.
Now, as other states move forward to upgrade their rail systems — the 110 mph train could be a reality by 2015 — Wisconsin is floundering. No 2,300 construction jobs, no track improvements, no plan.
In fact, the only new train running in Wisconsin is the toy train around the Christmas tree in the Capitol proclaiming the state "Open for Business."
"At least we have one train we can enjoy while other GOP governors get a real train," quips Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison.
And Wisconsin is still trying to figure out how to pay for badly needed rail improvements that would have otherwise been covered if Walker had not acted so foolishly.
This week, the Legislature's budget committee slowed planning for a permanent train maintenance facility in Milwaukee, opening the possibility the Amtrak cars will be serviced in Chicago instead. Republicans have balked at spending an estimated $53 million on the maintenance facility, saying it wasn't worth it for only two dozen permanent jobs. But not building the facility would result in the state defaulting on its contract with Spanish train company Talgo.
Sadly, the $810 million federal grant would have covered the cost of the maintenance facility, along with upgrades of tracks for the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line.
Earlier this year, the Walker administration went back to the feds and begged for $213 million to pay for upgrades to the Hiawatha line and most of the cost of the maintenance facility. But that request was denied.
"The Walker administration made a bad choice in wasting federal resources," says Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, in a statement. "Now Wisconsin taxpayers must foot the bill."
The state has already spent about $25 million on maintenance equipment and a temporary maintenance facility in Milwaukee for the Hiawatha line. All of that would have been covered under the money Walker rejected.
A sad day indeed.
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