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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Way Off Track

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     Color me "confused".

      As the great train debate swirls around Wisconsin, I honestly don't know who to believe or what to think.

      Wisconsin bemoans the fact that it seldom gets to wet it's beak at the government trough, yet when it lands $810 million federal dollars to build a high-speed train link between Madison and Milwaukee, there's a push to end the project (but keep the cash).

      The effort once had the support of the lord god of the Wisconsin GOP, former Governor Tommy Thompson--he, in fact, is seen in some circles as the guy who gave birth to the concept.    Years later, it's other Republicans including Governor-elect Scott Walker trying to torpedo the train.

      High-speed rail is decried as an expensive boondoggle by it's detractors who question potential ridership and how much it'll cost Wisconsin to maintain the train once it's built.    Yet other states including Illinois are standing in line, willing to take the cash to build their own high-speed routes.

       Congressman Tom Petri (another Republican) agrees with Walker and others in his party, saying the train shouldn't be built, yet he doubts Wisconsin can re-direct the cash for roads.

        I have no skin in the train game, yet I consider myself a fairly informed man and I'm still confused as to how this project--and the federal cash for it--came about.   Do people really WANT high speed rail around here?    Who'll ride it?   And, who'll pick up the cost to keep it going?

       Opponents did a fantastic job of framing the argument with clever nicknames and questions about whether this is the right way to use federal stimulus dollars.    They' say the cash should be used for infrastructure, a-k-a "roads".   There's no doubt our freeways and bridges need work--remember what happened with Milwaukee's Zoo Interchange this past spring--but how long do we stay addicted to a steady diet of orange barrels and wider interstates?    The highway beast is an animal with an insatiable appetite, and blacktop ain't cheap, either.    We talk the talk about transportation alternatives every time gasoline cracks three bucks a gallon, but we lose our backbone when the price creeps back down.    My village, Hales Corners, stands to be cut in half by an expanded Highway 100 that the DOT is pushing--a wider road the state says we need to accommodate projected traffic spikes but a project that is poised to turn the heart of my village's business district into a commuterl drive-by while leaving locals with shops that'll be a struggle to get to.    It happens all the time in Wisconsin, where bigger and wider is seen as the only DOT alternative.

        I don't know whether to embrace the train or to accept it as a waste of federal cash, and I think others share my confusion.  Blame that on Washington, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who did such a lousy job of explaining what high-speed rail was all about when he held a news conference about it in Watertown over the summer.    Instead of making his case, LaHood did nothing but insist that the train was going to happen, digging in his boots but offering nothing in the way of explaining the need or desire for such an undertaking. 

       LaHood and others thus allow train foes to frame the argument, and they've done so masterfully.    What better way to kill a project in these austere times by labeling it a costly boondoggle that will leave the state with a hefty operational tab once it's built?    I know why I take the Amtrak to Chicago--the cost, the convenience, the ability to leave my car at home without having to pay for hotel parking, the way the Hiawatha allows me to avoid Chicago freeway gridlock.     Madison-to-Milwaukee supporters have yet to tell me what I pay for a ticket, much less the advantages of taking the train instead of my car (I can go from my home to Camp Randall in an hour or so on a UW football game day--can high speed rail match that?   Would it still be cheaper for me to drive?).

       Legitimate questions that others may share, yet remain unanswered.     I know why I shouldn't like the train, but no one told me why should.    That's on the government and train backers.  

       Or, maybe I can go to Illinois, New York or one of the other states that so desperately want a high-speed rail link and who stand to get the money Wisconsin is turning down.

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