Walker’s great train robbery sticks us with a $60 million bill

This post was written by Smart Growth America coalition member 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and was originally published on BizTimes.com.

AFL-CIO members in Wisconsin rally to protect funding for high speed rail. Photo by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Last December (seems like years ago today) thousands of protesters decried then Governor-elect Walker’s decision to reject $810 million in federal dollars to construct a high-speed rail system in Wisconsin that would link Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago.

Protests were held not just in Madison and Milwaukee but in smaller towns like Waterloo that would gain economically from the rail investment. Among the suspect reasons that Mr. Walker gave for rejecting the aid was that the state couldn’t afford the annual operating costs of the federal gift.

The amount that the state “couldn’t afford” came to about $600,000 a year after federal matching subsidies. So the state ended up losing nearly a billion dollars of federal aid, thousands of engineering and construction jobs, a newly located train manufacturer in Milwaukee and countless dollars and jobs that would have occurred as a result of transit oriented development.

Rail proponents pointed out to Mr. Walker that we also stood to lose tens of millions of dollars that were badly needed for improvements to a section of state owned train tracks east of Madison as a part of the high-speed rail project.

A tone deaf Mr. Walker ignored those arguments and sent to gift back to Washington.

Now, Governor Walker is making the first payment due because of that rejection. His proposed 2011-2013 budget allocates $60 million for making the improvements to the train tracks that would have been paid for with the federal gift of $810 million for high-speed rail.

Put another way, if Mr. Walker had taken a different track, we could have had a regional rail connection that form the first link in connecting the Twin Cities to Madison to Milwaukee to Chicago and points east for about $600,000 a year. Instead, we are sent a bill by Mr. Walker for $60 million.

That $60 million could have paid for the operating costs of the system for the next 100 years.

Gone now is the opportunity for cities in Wisconsin to be linked to other major economic hubs in the region. Gone is the chance to escape high-priced gasoline, traffic jams, an opportunity to (legally) read, text or relax on trips that would take more than one or two hours to drive.

Gone is a chance for those who cannot drive to be connected with relatives and loved ones in other communities. All over a fictitious claim that we “couldn’t afford” $600,000 a year in operating costs.

Intercity passenger rail will eventually be constructed in Wisconsin. It may not happen under Governor Walker’s tenure, but our demographics, geography and economy demand it. The only thing is that instead of relying on federal aids (collected from residents in other states as well as Wisconsin) we will likely have to shoulder most of the costs ourselves.

(The new spending can be found on page 150 of AB-40, the proposed state budget bill.)

Walker’s great train robbery sticks us with a $60 million bill [BizTimes.com, 3/15/11]