Next Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin means everything to the prospect of improved train service in that state. But local rail advocates are still unsure whether the passenger rail issue will hurt or help embattled Republican Governor Scott Walker, who is in a tight race against challenger Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee.
“I think we’ve taken it from a big negative for us to about a break-even,” said Brett Hulsey, a Democratic state assemblyman from the west side of Madison who is an outspoken supporter of both Barrett and better trains. “That’s progress. But Walker has TV ads now beating up Barrett for a $100 million dollar streetcar project in Milwaukee. Apparently this is still polling well for Walker.”
In the fall of 2010, when Walker ran for the statehouse, he made an issue of the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail project, which had received $810 million in federal funding, saying “I’d rather take that money and fix Wisconsin’s crumbling roads and bridges.” Walker also set up a website, NoTrain.Com.
The money wasn’t, in fact, fungible, and soon after he was elected, Walker returned it to the federal government, which redistributed it to other states, including California and Illinois. Other Republican governors, Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio, followed suit.
As it turned out, stopping the “Boondoggle train to Madison” was a political winner.
“Transportation choice advocates and Democrats, didn’t do a good job leading up to the last election, in explaining the benefits,” Hulsey admits. “We thought we had a done deal. And we should have done a better job making it part of the political discourse.”
Barrett, for his part, is trying to do just that, drawing a straight line between transportation improvements and the state’s hunger for jobs with visits to the. He recently visited a Talgo factory that has been making new train cars for the existing Hiawatha line. Funding for that too is in jeopardy, even though the cars are 99 percent complete.
Talgo is no passive prop. The company hasn’t been at all shy about their feelings for Walker’s leadership. Their Twitter feed has been quite sharp, and the company’s Vice President of Public Affairs and Business Development, Nora Friend, recently complained bluntly to Milwaukee’s WUWM radio. that the Walker Administration’s apparent intention to breach a maintenance contract would mean Talgo would have to close its current facility and lay off skilled workers.
“We find ourselves in this situation,” she said, “because of the blunder of returning $810 million dollars. The cost of that permanent maintenance facility was included in those finds that Wisconsin competed to get. We don’t want to have to litigate our contract. What we want is very simple. we want the state of wisconsin to do what it preaches, that it is open for business.”
Hulsey points to a report that Walker has actually given away $1.3 Billion in federal money, and thinks the public is starting to understand the Democrat’s view of the matter. “We have educated the public that of the 35,000 jobs that we lost last year, 5,500 of those jobs would have been people upgrading our train tracks, direct and indirect jobs.”
Hulsey likes to encourage train supporters in states such as Illinois to send letters to Walker thanking him for the re-appropriated funds and resulting jobs.
“Those jobs and the benefits of those jobs would have far exceeded any operating costs to maintain rail service to Madison," said Nora Friend.
Walker’s straightforward position, like that of Florida Governor Rick Scott, is that, given the economic climate and mounting deficits, federal and state governments cannot afford to risk millions and billions of dollars on rail systems they see as speculative and likely to require years of subsidy. Whether voters agree with this, or the argument that government is in a unique position to create desperately needed jobs and new infrastructure critical to economic development, won’t be clear until election day, if then.
But Hulsey counters Walkers claims with a classic Democratic argument. “The fact that this is happening in battleground states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida is not an accident,” he told me. “This is part of the Republican do-nothing strategy to try to make President Obama look as bad as possible. Hurting workers to hurt Obama is the overall strategy.”