An Amtrak train waits for trip to Chicago at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station in 2010, a year after the state received nearly a billion dollars in federal funding to connect Madison and Milwaukee via a high-speed rail line.

Wisconsin Public Radio recently launched a new podcast series it calls "Derailed," revisiting how Wisconsin blew its best chance to expand passenger rail service in the state.

I'm amused that WPR reporters Shawn Johnson and Bridget Bowden sounded surprised to discover that the high-speed rail project was actually championed in the beginning by none other than Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. I keep forgetting that many of today's reporters weren't around in those "old days" of 20 or so years ago.

Indeed, what the podcast shows is that passenger rail wasn't a partisan issue at all, nor should it ever have been. Thompson was a leading advocate for connecting Milwaukee and Madison with higher speed trains and eventually improving service all the way to the Twin Cities.

Some politicians actually opted to do what's best for the people, rather than their own political fortunes.

Through his railroad commissioner, the late Rodney Kruenen, Thompson arranged for demonstration rides featuring the latest in passenger cars — and after becoming chair of the Amtrak board while governor, he got Amtrak to extend its Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service to Watertown one summer to demonstrate its convenience.

Thompson went off to serve as President George W. Bush's secretary of Health and Human Services, and trains temporarily wound up on the back burner. Then came Bush's Great Recession, and new President Barack Obama's stimulus program to help right the economy. Part of the stimulus included $810 million in federal funding for the Madison-Milwaukee route, and a string of improvements at the Milwaukee train station and along the route to Chicago to accommodate faster trains.

But then, Gov. Scott Walker and his like-minded Republican colleagues came along. Suddenly, passenger rail became a full-throated partisan issue, Walker insisting that it would benefit only the "liberal" bastions of the state's two largest cities while folks upstate would get nothing. It was the kind of "divide and conquer" tactic for which Walker became famous. The train became a cudgel for clear political gain.

Walker, who claimed that the $810 million expansion would cost Wisconsin taxpayers $7 million a year for maintenance, was elected, and he promptly returned the money to the feds. The irony is that Wisconsin taxpayers wound up paying roughly $100 million for a train set that had been already been built, plus the improvements elsewhere on the Hiawatha line that would have been paid by the federal dollars. In other words, enough money to have paid maintenance costs for 15 years.

And these are the same guys who pat themselves on the back for their great "financial stewardship."

It's political shenanigans like what Republicans did to passenger rail that leads to headlines like we saw earlier this week: Wisconsin has now dropped to No. 45 among the 50 states in gaining its share of federal dollars.

A big reason Wisconsin dropped from 33rd to 45th since 2010, obviously, is the Walker cabal's stubborn refusal to take federal dollars to expand Medicaid. That's costing state taxpayers approximately $1 billion per biennium, money that could free up state revenues for other projects — highway maintenance, schools, the university, perhaps?

But, it's apparently more important to hurt the Affordable Care Act than to expand health coverage to 80,000 Wisconsin citizens scraping by on low incomes.

Why do what's best for the people of the state when there are political points to be made?

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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