Dec 24, 2011

Scott Walker's $810 million Rail Road Blunder Looks Even Worse One Year Later

This model train, featuring the slogan "Wisconsin is Open for Business,"
is running around the base of the Christmas tree
at the state Capitol in Madison. Photo by Larry Tamiso

Update: See also Absurd: Tea Party Mayor Rejects Federally Funded, Job-Creating Amtrak Line.
"In what could be a new high water mark of anti-Washington sentiment, the city of Troy, Mich., is rejecting a long-planned transportation center whose construction would have been fully financed with federal stimulus money. The terminal, which would help Troy become a transportation node on an upgraded Detroit-to-Chicago Amtrak line, was hailed by supporters as a way to create jobs and to spur economic development." (NYT)

Suppose that a given state is offered $810 million in funding for a labor-intensive [lots of jobs] project to improve and expand its rail road system. And the state's governor said, in effect, 'no, we don't want the $810 million, or the jobs.'

This is precisely what happened when Scott Walker made one of the most foolish decisions in the history of Wisconsin public policy in this period of sustained high unemployment.

Scott Walker, taking his cues from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch brothers, has dictated over a no-growth, crony capitalistic, corrupt period of Wisconsin history that will take a years-long, damage-repair effort.

For an excellent analysis of the scope and danger of what is happening to our country, especially the state of Wisconsin (ground zero in the battle to take our country back starting with the recall of Scott Walker), see:

The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin) has a tremendous editorial looking back at Scott Walker's corrupt and imbecilic rejection of $810 million:

A year later, Walker rail blunder looks even worse

Last Dec. 9, exactly a year ago, federal officials redirected $810 million in transportation funding that Gov. Scott Walker had rejected to improve Wisconsin's rail system.

That rejection may go down as one of the biggest political goofs in state history.

Walker had campaigned against the proposed Madison-Milwaukee passenger train project, saying it represented "runaway government spending" and would cost state taxpayers in the long run.

"I'm going to stop that boondoggle train to Madison" became a rallying cry for Walker, whose own polling showed that dissing Madison — and the train — was a winning issue despite the wider long-term implications for the state's transportation system.

Walker played that high-stakes gamble throughout the race, saying he could persuade Congress to redirect the money to fix Wisconsin's highways or bridges.

But after the election, when it became obvious the Obama administration was going to send the rail funds to other states, Walker had to fall on his sword to save face. That prompted the Los Angeles Times to famously write "Thanks a billion, cheeseheads" after the money was sent instead to California.

Now, as other states move forward to upgrade their rail systems — the 110 mph train could be a reality by 2015 — Wisconsin is floundering. No 2,300 construction jobs, no track improvements, no plan.

In fact, the only new train running in Wisconsin is the toy train around the Christmas tree in the Capitol proclaiming the state "Open for Business."

"At least we have one train we can enjoy while other GOP governors get a real train," quips Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison.

And Wisconsin is still trying to figure out how to pay for badly needed rail improvements that would have otherwise been covered if Walker had not acted so foolishly.

This week, the Legislature's budget committee slowed planning for a permanent train maintenance facility in Milwaukee, opening the possibility the Amtrak cars will be serviced in Chicago instead. Republicans have balked at spending an estimated $53 million on the maintenance facility, saying it wasn't worth it for only two dozen permanent jobs. But not building the facility would result in the state defaulting on its contract with Spanish train company Talgo.

Sadly, the $810 million federal grant would have covered the cost of the maintenance facility, along with upgrades of tracks for the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line.

Earlier this year, the Walker administration went back to the feds and begged for $213 million to pay for upgrades to the Hiawatha line and most of the cost of the maintenance facility. But that request was denied.

"The Walker administration made a bad choice in wasting federal resources," says Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, in a statement. "Now Wisconsin taxpayers must foot the bill."

The state has already spent about $25 million on maintenance equipment and a temporary maintenance facility in Milwaukee for the Hiawatha line. All of that would have been covered under the money Walker rejected.

A sad day indeed.

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