The arguments against rail just don’t measure up

Editorial MJS, Sunday, Nov 14

We need jobs; this would provide some. We need economic development; this would link the state to those networks. Think of it as state money coming home.

Governor-elect Scott Walker wants to stop a fast rail line from Milwaukee to Madison essentially because he thinks it would be a waste of taxpayer money. But what’s really in danger of being wasted here is opportunity: opportunity for jobs, for economic growth, for a modern balanced transportation system.

Walker ran on a campaign that emphasized the need for jobs, jobs and more jobs. He has promised to call a special session as soon as he’s sworn into office aimed at creating a more business-friendly atmosphere in Wisconsin. He has promised to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. His approach is right on target.

What he and other critics of rail miss is that creating a network of fast trains to connect Midwestern cities can play an essential role in helping businesses connect and in creating jobs. Providing another option to traffic-jammed freeways and hassle-plagued airports could attract new companies and young workers who prefer working on a train to sitting in traffic or being body-scanned in an airport. Add in gas prices that are bound to go up and Wisconsin’s occasionally traffic-killing weather, and traveling by rail becomes even more attractive.

Fast rail probably works best for medium-range traveling, say in the 100- to 400-mile range, which is exactly what’s being discussed here. And while speeds won’t reach the true high-speed standards of Europe and Japan, they are expected to be up to 110 mph by 2015 and will still provide a convenient service that avoids the hassles of driving and flying and allows passengers to rest or work while they’re traveling. Using rail to connect business centers and research parks in Chicago to such centers in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis could help those centers interact and feed off each other for growth.

If that network isn’t built here, companies and young workers will go to places such as Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake City that embrace transit, as Steve Hiniker of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin told us.

A report released earlier this year by the U.S. Conference of Mayors looked at the potential benefits of high-speed rail for four “hub” cities: Albany, Chicago, Orlando and Los Angeles. Chicago would be the center of a network that would connect the city to St. Louis, Detroit and Minneapolis (with stops in Milwaukee and Madison). The report projected “as much as $6.1 billion a year in new business sales, producing up to 42,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in new wages.”

Even if the gains don’t reach those levels, there will still be gains. Wisconsin could get a piece of that action, but only if it doesn’t waste the opportunity that it’s been given. Now consider what happens if we do throw that out. Gov. Jim Doyle has argued that it will cost the state $100 million that will have to be repaid to the federal government and 400 jobs.

Talgo, a Spanish firm that’s going to build railroad cars in Milwaukee, could pull out after 2012 and move to Illinois, which would welcome that company with open arms. Businesses that may have been planning to grow around the Talgo site now wonder if they should, given the possibility that the company may pull out.

Walker got elected governor as a job-creator. Does he really want to get the reputation as a job-killer right out of the gate?

The feds are giving Wisconsin $810 million to build the fast passenger rail line from Milwaukee to Madison and another $13 million for improvements on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee route. Walker supports the improvements on the Chicago-Milwaukee line and is willing to talk about improvements on the current Milwaukee-to-Minneapolis line.

But he also has argued that the federal government should allow Wisconsin to use much of that money on roads. Granted, the federal government could make some changes, perhaps a compromise can be reached; but that strikes us as about as likely to happen as Fox Valley inhabitants suddenly becoming Chicago Bears fans.

The Obama administration has invested $8 billion in federal stimulus money to create 13 high-speed rail corridors. If Wisconsin doesn’t want to spend those federal dollars (think of it as some of “our” money, returned to us), some other state will be more than happy to. Illinois officials say they’d be more than willing to accept them. New York and California undoubtedly would be just as willing.

Walker also says he doesn’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for the operational costs of the system, estimated to be about $7.5 million annually. But that’s tiny compared with projects such as the Marquette Interchange rebuild ($800 million), the pending Zoo Interchange rebuild ($2.3 billion) and the widening of I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois border ($1.9 billion). And if the feds pick up 90% of the operational cost of the line, as they do for the Hiawatha passenger service between Chicago and Milwaukee, state tax support for the line would be a relative pittance. Maybe such support wouldn’t be guaranteed, as Walker argues, but it’s certainly worth talking about.

Critics of the rail line argue that the Obama administration is investing in an outdated mode of transportation. Here’s what’s outdated: an interstate highway system that’s more than half a century old and crumbling. Major portions of it are being rebuilt at tremendous cost. Here’s also what’s out of date: continuing to rely on enormous quantities of foreign-supplied gasoline to move large numbers of people in individual vehicles over long distances.

As the nation rebuilds its interstate system – and, yes, roads and cars will still be the backbone of America’s transportation infrastructure – let’s also build a smarter system that provides travelers with reasonable and better options. Let’s not put all our eggs in a couple of baskets.

Wisconsin has an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. To miss that opportunity would be the real waste. To be competitive in a global economy, the state has to plan for a future that includes a modern rail network as part of a modern transportation system. Let’s start now by saying “yes.”