Developing a high-speed rail system is essential to Wisconsin's economic future. Failure to do so will leave the state behind as the national transportation infrastructure of the 21st century is developed.
This point is beyond debate, at least among Wisconsinites who actually pay attention not just to transportation debates but to every serious discussion about economic development.
Gov.-elect Scott Walker knows this, as did former Gov. Tommy Thompson — who during his tenure was one of the nation's leading advocates for expansion of the nation's passenger rail system.
Unfortunately, Walker has chosen to play politics rather than lead.
So it is that he now says he will use legal and political gimmicks to stop the $810 million Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger rail project. If he succeeds, Wisconsin will not enjoy the benefits of a national passenger rail system, which will be central to the economic future not just of the Midwest but the nation.
To opt out of the project would be like Wisconsin opting out of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
Yet it appears that Walker's political play is prevailing. The rail project was put on temporary hold this week by Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials at the instruction of Gov. Jim Doyle.
This fits-and-starts approach, and the confusion about who is in charge, is devastating from an economic development standpoint.
Republicans argued during the 2010 campaign that businesses were not going to start expanding and hiring because they were unsure what Democrats in Congress were going to do next with regard to taxes and regulation — or even if Democrats were going to be in charge after Nov. 2. The GOP's point was that too much change, especially erratic and unfocused change for the sake of change, creates an unstable landscape for businesses that need to plan.
Wisconsin businesses — and businesses around the country — have been planning, in many cases for years, on the development of high-speed rail.
What Walker is saying and doing — and what state officials may be doing in conjunction with him — is damaging to Wisconsin's long-term economic prospects. It is a case of putting politics ahead of planning and common sense. And it will have severe consequences for job creation and growth in this state.
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