Sometimes a politician does something so dumb that it’s hard to stop shaking your head at the folly.
Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to hand back $810 million to the federal government — money that would have built a fast train from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago — remains one of the most unfortunate and stupid acts in recent Wisconsin history. Not only did Walker deprive Wisconsin of a modern rail system, his ideological rigidity cost our state thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars.
I was reminded recently just how foolish and harmful Walker's actions were when I had the chance to ride a fast train in Europe. I was in France visiting my son, who is teaching at his university’s Paris campus. While there, I traveled to southern France by train. A train trip creates 90 percent less pollution than flying.
My destination was farther from Paris than Louisville, Kentucky, is from Madison. Yet I arrived in less than three hours, traveling over 180 miles an hour in total comfort. In a few places, the train paralleled a freeway, and although the cars were driving at their top speed, the train flew by them as if they were standing still. Since I was in France, I sat back with a glass of wine and observed the scene out the window. It was like riding through a painting — small villages of stone houses and ancient churches amidst fields of deep green and vibrant yellow.
Another benefit of the train was convenience. It went from city center to city center — no long drives to and from the airport on the outskirts of town. When I fly, I’m admonished to be at the airport at least an hour before my flight departs. There was a time warning for the train: They urged passengers to be at the station two minutes before departure.
The high-speed train from Madison wouldn’t have been quite as fast as the French train, but it would have been a lot faster than driving, even if you didn’t encounter a traffic jam.
Walker’s decision, supposedly based on avoiding about $5 million a year in operating costs, has cost the taxpayers plenty. Because the federal grant would have made necessary repairs to the Hiawatha line from Milwaukee to Chicago, returning the federal money has meant that the state has had to spend tens of millions of Wisconsin taxpayer dollars instead. The cancellation of the rail link also meant that the state was out $50 million to the train manufacturer Talgo for trains that were built but never used, plus a large punitive settlement.
It wasn’t just tax dollars we lost. In a state that has fallen behind the rest of the nation in job creation, we also forfeited a large number of employment opportunities. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, rail-related employment would have peaked at 4,732 jobs, largely in construction of the line. Operating and maintaining the trains would have created 55 permanent jobs. On top of that, the train manufacturer Talgo laid off its workforce and moved out of state. Talgo employed 150 workers in a section of Milwaukee that desperately needs jobs and held promise to expand future employment significantly. Also, a modern transportation system is a big draw for high-tech companies.
Wisconsin is now considering spending close to a billion dollars to expand a short stretch of I-94 in Milwaukee. A high-speed train would have provided (for Wisconsin taxpayers) a free and superior alternative to more pollution and traffic jams.
Of Walker’s many mistakes, his train folly may well be the biggest.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.
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