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It’s sad — and kind of darkly comic — to look back at all those years of newspaper clips, political statements and planning related to the apparently doomed Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line. So much paper, so many man (and woman) hours, so much heat.

And then poof! No light, so to speak, at the end of the tunnel.

I never really had any strong feelings about the train, although it would have run about a block and a half away from my house.

Mostly, I observed all the earnest neighborhood planning on my neighborhood listserv, watched the polls consistently giving anti-train candidate Scott Walker the lead in the governor’s race, and waited to see just how good our likely new executive would be at the game of chicken.

So far he’s pretty good.

But then he’s a Republican and a self-professed conservative and typically they don’t like big public works projects and (at least in theory) big public debts. They also seem constitutionally opposed to public transit, seeing as how one of the benefits of American exceptionalism — a conservative favorite — is the freedom to drive anywhere you want, when you want.

Democrats and those still willing to call themselves liberals, of course, believe it’s appropriate and right to force (or at least strongly incentivize) people to adopt practices that will ultimately be in their own best interests — like driving more fuel-efficient cars or chucking the car and relying on environmentally friendly public transit.

Under the pro-train Gov. Jim Doyle, the state Department of Transportation touted an Amtrak estimate showing some 330,000 people would use the line annually, as well as data collected showing the train would be a boon to the state’s economy.

Train opponents advance a different narrative. In letters to federal officials before and after he was elected, Walker suggests the project would be plagued by cost overruns and contends it would create only 55 permanent jobs and cost millions in subsidies to maintain.

But ultimately what matters is what people do, and the best way to gauge enthusiasm for the Milwaukee-to-Madison line is to make it worth something — specifically, cold, hard cash.

I propose the state set up a fund to collect down payments on fares. Essentially, train backers would send in checks for, say, 20 percent of what a ticket would cost. Should the train get built, they’d pay the remaining 80 percent and hit the rails. Those who don’t pay would forfeit their 20 percent.

Conversely, if the train isn’t built, disappointed train-backers would get their money back.

In the meantime, Walker and other politicians would have an accurate barometer of train support expressed in a language they understand very, very well — money — and train-backers would be forced to translate their high-minded enthusiasm into something a bit more fungible.

I ran my idea past a Facebook page set up to lobby for the reinstatement for the rail project and got several people saying they were willing to put their money where their ideals are. There were also those who asked why they should put up for trains if we don’t expect the same for airport and roadway projects. And there were those who pointed to the state’s rosy projections.

But no one’s planning to shut down an airport or expressway project, and while well-researched predictions about the future are all well and good, wouldn’t ticket sales be the first real-life data about the train’s likely success?

I also ran the idea past Walker’s transition office and after repeated requests for comment, Walker press secretary Cullen Werwie provided the standard line, via e-mail: “Constructing the Madison-Milwaukee rail line will put Wisconsinites on the hook for millions of dollars worth of operating subsidies, and the cost of providing basic maintenance and operation for many years. Gov.-elect Walker will fulfill his campaign promise of stopping this train line to protect taxpayers.”

Werwie did not address my prepaid ticket idea, nor respond to yet another request that he do so.

Maybe they’re just mulling it over; it wouldn’t be the first time in this rail project’s long and tortured history it was sidetracked by more study.

But I doubt it.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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