Tommy’s a turncoat on rail

It was more than disappointing last week to see former Gov. Tommy Thompson do a complete 180 to bash the planned extension of Amtrak’s Hiawatha service to Madison.

No governor, with the exception of the current incumbent, Jim Doyle, has been more outspoken on behalf of the need for passenger rail than Thompson was during his terms in office.

It unfortunately proves once again that politics trumps principles. Because Republican Scott Walker, who received Thompson’s blessing in last week’s GOP gubernatorial primary, has made anti-passenger rail a key issue in his campaign, Thompson obviously felt obligated to change the position that had once made him a candidate for U.S. secretary of transportation before George W. Bush switched gears and made him secretary of health and human services instead.

What made Thompson’s turncoat position so ironic was that it was his support for the Chicago to Milwaukee daily Hiawatha service that helped make it the success it has become, transporting hundreds of thousands of passengers between the two cities, providing jobs and saving tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline in the process.

He spoke often in support of extending the service to Madison, staunchly backing his railroad commissioner, Rod Kreunen, who was an even more outspoken passenger rail advocate. He even convinced Amtrak to conduct trial runs from Milwaukee to Watertown to determine if people would ride. They did.

Thompson announced his newfound opposition to the federally funded $810 million line to Madison while at a press conference to announce his endorsement of Rep. Brett Davis of Oregon in the GOP’s primary for lieutenant governor. The former governor claimed that he was opposed because it “cost too much” and really isn’t “high speed,” since it will eventually only travel about 100 mph.

In line with the malarkey that Republican candidates Scott Walker and Mark Neumann espoused during their primary campaigns, he predicted Wisconsin could take the feds’ $810 million and use it for highways instead, even if it is part of a $4 billion stimulus package aimed at improving passenger rail service in America. Wisconsin got a share of that stimulus because it had a well-developed plan for rail, not because it needed another billion dollars or so to redo another highway interchange.

The big question, though, is when and why did passenger rail become a partisan issue?

The need to diversify the nation’s transportation system has long been a goal of both Republican and Democratic officeholders in cities and states throughout the country. Last I looked, there was no right-left, liberal-conservative way to build highways or airport runways or railroad beds. The country is facing a future where it needs to re-examine the way people get to their destinations and plan accordingly.

Whether we like it or not, we will need to rely on more than automobiles to get where we’re going. We can’t forever widen highways and build fancy new interchanges to make sure cars and trucks don’t run into each other. And unless we’re able someday to get everyone to buy electric cars, we’re facing the day when we will run out of cheap gas to keep our cars going.

Tommy Thompson’s endorsement of Brett Davis for lieutenant governor didn’t help much. Davis lost by nearly 100,000 votes to a Bible-thumping, anti-gay zealot from the Milwaukee silk-stocking suburbs. Perhaps Tommy’s sudden opposition to passenger rail will meet the same fate.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.