Walker sends high-speed rail plans off track

Wisconsinites won’t be traveling to nearby cities via 110 mph high-speed rail anytime soon.

The $810 million federally funded project toward a high-speed rail system linking Milwaukee and Madison was halted by Gov. Jim Doyle following the Nov. 2 general election. Governor-Elect Scott Walker actively opposed the issue while campaigning.

On Nov. 10, Walker proposed a different usage for the federal funding, requesting it be reallocated to the state’s roads and bridges. Walker presented the new proposal to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

According to the Associated Press, LaHood responded that if Walker does not change his position, the funding could be withdrawn and given to another state. Illinois, New York and California have all shown interest in the money if this were to happen.

With most Democrats supporting the system and most Republicans against it, there is much outside debate regarding what effects high-speeds rail could have.

According to the Department of Transportation, an estimated 9,500 new permanent jobs would be created, in addition to temporary jobs in design and construction. It also predicted that business productivity would increase due to less traffic time and a larger access to job markets.

Additionally, the DOT said the rail would increase tourism, which is Wisconsin’s third largest industry.

During his campaign, Walker spoke of negatives such as possible tax increases, expensive ticket and operating costs, and time costs. He said the process of going to the train station and the trip itself would take longer than driving a car.

John McAdams, associate professor of political science, said he believes the funding would not only result in short-term gain, but also that the community might not realize what the investment could mean.

“Rail systems are a huge money pet,” McAdams said. “They’re never economically beneficial and projects like this don’t promote long-term economic development.”

McAdams also compared the funding to “being offered a free puppy,” and many do not understand the actual costs of it.

“If you assume government money is free money with no opportunity cost, it always sounds like a good idea,” he said. “And in urban environments with dense populations, a high-speed rail would be a great addition … here it just doesn’t make sense.”

The opposition gained support not only from politicians, but also from trade unions.

These groups include the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters, according to a press release issued yesterday by the Office of Governor-Elect Scott Walker.

Kevin Traas, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said they are neither strongly for or opposed to the rail line, but see the necessity of maintaining the federal funding in Wisconsin.

“We aren’t necessarily supporting Scott Walker, but we’re trying to support other options for this funding outside of the high-speed rail,” Traas said. “Investments can be made in other expansion projects that would have the same, if not better, effects as what high-speed rail would.”

Facts might be lost in the debate. Of 40 states that requested federal money, Wisconsin was the only one to receive its request in full. With the money, the extension would be the first fully funded high-speed rail corridor in the country, according to the Department of Transportation website.

A rail line here could link Wisconsin to the entire Midwest, including Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and Kansas City. Estimated costs per ticket are $20 to $33, and express trips would take an hour and 17 minutes from downtown Milwaukee to Madison.

Thomas Powell, freshman in the College of Engineering, said he would not have a problem paying that price for a train ride to Madison.

“Driving there and back would probably cost just as much in gas as the ticket would, so I wouldn’t mind paying that at all,” Powell said.