Midwest Rail Advocates Take the Fight to Scott Walker

Rail advocates place this billboard along the corridor where Governor Scott Walker rejected a high-speed rail line. Photo: Environmental Law and Policy Center via The Political Environment

In November, voters in 36 states will head to the polls to choose governors. Among the state leaders up for reelection is Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who faces a strong challenge from Democrat and former Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke.

Walker is one of three Republican governors who rejected high-speed rail funds from the Obama administration in 2010 and 2011. Now rail advocates are looking to remind Wisconsinites of what they lost out on. James Rowen at the Political Environment writes:

Readers of this blog over the years have probably seen innumerable posts — many rolled into or referenced in a comprehensive, summary 2013 item — about Wrong-Way Walker’s reversal of federal funding for Amtrak service from Milwaukee to Madison.

Also lost after the 2010 gubernatorial election: years of good-paying rail line construction jobs and a now-shuttered train assembly factory and maintenance base in a low-income Milwaukee neighborhood, all victims of Walker’s “No-train,” Tea Party-inspired, self-serving and partisan attack on the federal government, out-going Gov. Jim Doyle and Pres. Barack Obama.

Rail transportation advocates haven’t give up, as seen in this billboard along the now-lost rail corridor between Madison and Milwaukee. Hats off to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, (ELPC), in Chicago, for the activism and media campaign.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network today: Dan Malouff at Beyond DC suggests keeping cars out of transit lanes using some of the same techniques cities employ to make protected bike lanes. BikeWalkLee has the numbers to prove that recent transit cuts in Lee County, Florida, are depressing ridership. And Bike Portland posts photos of the best bike parking at a Portland retail business.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    And NY State Democrats: Our current governor has a primary coming up too!

  • Katja

    Godspeed, Mary Burke.

    My parents live in a suburb of Madison. Getting to see them is always an expensive or obnoxious proposition, as my options are the Van Galder bus, which takes at least 4 hours due to all its stops, the Megabus, which is rarely on time but at least doesn’t stop, and renting a car. A train would have alleviated all the headaches of I-90 construction and cost far less than car rentals.

  • C Monroe

    Walker decision not only hampered Wisconsin plans but Minnesota and Illinois plans of a Twin Cities to Chicago higher speed service.

  • Governor Walker rejected federal high-speed rail grants because Wisconsin would have been on the hook to pay for cost overruns for building the system and then for operational expenses once it was built. Ditto for Governor Scott in Florida. Federal grants to start these projects don’t cover cost overruns or operational expenses.

  • Nathanael

    Walker spent more in costs due to breaking the contracts than the cost of running the system for TEN YEARS. And also drove Talgo out of the state, losing jobs and business income.

    As for the Florida line — it was projected to be profitable (because it was very fast). And IIRC *private businesses in Tampa* promised to cover any cost overruns or operating losses (they were pretty sure there wouldn’t be any).

    So, in short, Walker and Scott were just lying. Liars. Scum.

  • The Florida line “was projected to be profitable” by who? Supporters of these projects, no doubt, just like the high-speed rail project in California. It’s supporters insisted that high-speed rail is profitable around the world, when the opposite is the case: the systems are built with taxpayers’ money and then subsidized after they are built.

    Those federal grants wouldn’t have covered either cost overruns building the systems or the operational expenses after they were built. That would have been up to the taxpayers of Florida and Wisconsin.
    http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2011/03/why-california-should-reject-high-speed.html

    There’s no profit to be made in passenger rail, which is why Warren Buffett invested in freight rail.

  • G1991

    No form of transportation is fully self-sustaining, except freight rail; and even that is to a limited extent today. The massive build-out of our freight network could not have been carried out in the 19th Century without federal assistance. Airports require subsidies, highways require subsidies, why is passenger rail held to a higher standard? The idea of high-speed rail service is not to make money, but to generate economic activity by moving people between economic centers quickly and efficiently. Public transportation systems typically don’t pay for themselves in the private-sector sense. Instead, they contribute to the tax base and generate billions of dollars in revenues over time for municipalities and states. However, there are several high-speed services around the world that cover their operational (but typically not maintenance) costs. NTV, several TGV lines, Shinkansen, Eurostar, and even the Acela to name a few. Also, just to answer your question, the profitability of the Florida High-Speed Railway was predicted by the Florida Department of Transportation.

  • kastigar

    There was a former rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. It shut down for lack of riders. Today it’s a very nice bicycle path, the Glacial-Drumlin Trail.

    If we don’t learn from the past we’ll keep making the same mistakes again.

  • The high-speed rail lines you cite are only individual lines within a larger systems that are heavily subsidized. The Acela line of course is part of Amtrak, which gets more than a billion dollars a year from the federal government. The Acela line makes sense, since it’s in the most densely populated part of the country.

    Of course public transportation is subsidized, but the point is to use public money wisely when making those investments—getting the biggest bang for the taxpayers’ bucks.

    On the Florida high-speed rail proposal: Like the California project, Florida’s is based on inflated ridership projections to make it appear profitable, along with unrealistic construction and operational projections.
    http://reason.org/studies/show/still-a-loser-the-tampa-to-orlando

    Here in San Francisco, we have a Muni bus system that has 700,000 passengers a day, and it still is routinely under-funded by the city, even though it has shown exactly what it can do for the public money invested. High-speed rail in the US is a bad idea, since the population densities don’t exist like they do in other countries. Buses are much cheaper and a better way to go for public transit.

  • G1991

    Why are you citing the Reason Foundation? You do know that they are an incredibly biased organization with funding ties to Koch Industries and the American Legislative Exchange Council, right? Just like the Cato Institute, very little of their information is factual. In terms of population density, California is the second highest in the United States behind the Northeast, and Florida has the largest tourism market on the continent. The Midwest is well-suited for at least a starter system (higher-speed rail rather than high-speed), given all of the major cities located within a 400 mile radius of Chicago, a densely populated city. Transportation and land use go hand in hand, with a priority given to motor vehicles, you’re going to get sprawl. A transportation and land use system based on fixed nodes will result in higher density. BUT, you have to have the land use policies in place. Urban sprawl didn’t just happen, it’s not a result of the free market. It’s a result of zoning codes and incentives that pushed developments away from urban cores; this is something that can be changed. It’s also not really a fair comparison to just say “the United States doesn’t have the population density…” because these corridors are looking at the most dense areas of the U.S., not the U.S. as a whole. The Tampa-Orlando segment of the Florida HSR line had stations in areas that had population densities over 5000 people per square mile. Yes, the Northeast is our most densely populated region, but that doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY region viable for rail service.

    Just saying “buses are better” is WAY too broad of a statement. Buses may be suitable for some routes, but most certainly not all routes. Inter-city buses are still at the mercy of roadway congestion, whereas trains are not. For example, here in the Midwest, it takes more than 4 hours to get from downtown Indianapolis to downtown Chicago on a good day. With a 110 mph higher-speed rail service, that same trip with take just over 2 hours. Also, in order to reach the capacity of inter-city rail with inter-city buses, one would need A LOT of buses, which means very high operational costs and the shorter life cycles of buses would require three purchases of new fleets during a single life cycle of a few trainsets. The same goes for inner-city public transportation as well. On some routes that require a form of rapid transit but don’t yet require the capacity of rail, Bus Rapid Transit can be a good choice. However, there are also situations in which BRT vehicles would have to run much more frequently in order to meet demand. The result is a need for more individual buses, each of which must have a driver, each of which must be fueled, each of which requires maintenance, and each of which carry less than a series of light rail vehicles or metro rail vehicles could carry. In these situations, it makes more sense to have rail transit since more passengers can be carried at an overall lower operating cost. Otherwise, any savings made from the capital expense would be lost in a short period of time from the high operational expense.

    I still fail to see why inter-city rail needs to be profitable when buses, planes, and cars are all subsidized WAY more than passenger rail. In fact, as of 2014, Amtrak was announcing an 88% recovery rate at the fare box (Press Release Seen Here:http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/778/373/Amtrak-Covers-88-Percent-of-Operating-Costs-ATK-13-022.pdf). In the meantime, roads barely cover half their costs, the highway trust fund is insolvent, fuel is subsidized through tax cuts, and the the FAA requires billions of dollars. When it comes to linking medium to large cities together in a region between distances of 100 to 500 miles, rail is by far the most efficient in terms of energy, time, financial, and spacial efficiency.

  • The highway trust fund of course is inadequate due to Republicans in Congress and their fanatical refusal to raise the gas tax.

    Your Amtrak link doesn’t work.

    Trains are more expensive to build and more expensive to maintain than bus lines. The number of passengers these proposed rail projects will carry is the real issue, along with lowballed estimates of construction costs and the cost of operating these systems after they’re built.

    The California high-speed rail project got in trouble early because supporters exaggerated future passenger numbers and radically under-estimated construction and operational costs, which is common when supporters push these costly projects:
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521009464/qid%3D1028792510/sr%3D1-3/ref%3Dsr_1_3/102-6346546-5055320

  • G1991

    That’s odd that the link isn’t working, it was fine earlier.

    Your statement about buses is a bit of a yes and no. Inter-city buses operate on highways, which cost billions more than a 110 mph upgrade to rail service (the construction costs of a single interchange in Milwaukee cost more than $1 billion, enough to cover the cost of construction and decades of operation and maintenance of the Madison-Chicago line) and are more heavily subsidized than any other form of transportation infrastructure. The operation of the bus is subsidized through fuel subsidies and roadway maintenance costs. On the surface, it looks like inter-city buses are much cheaper. However, their lower passenger-carrying capacity, subsidies, shorter lifespans, and their inability to spur development make them more expensive per passenger in the long term than rail service.

    I fail to see the point of your link. All projects carry risk, the interstate highway system carried risk, the Hoover Dam carried risk, yet these are infrastructure investments that remain critical to this day.

  • The book I linked is important to see how supporters of big infrastructure projects get them approved by inflating the future benefits and downplaying the costs to taxpayers. The authors studied a lot of major projects, including the Chunnel.

    The link showing that Amtrak received 88 cents on the dollar doesn’t work. Like to see some evidence for that claim.

  • G1991
  • Okay, but that statement is only about paying to operate the system, since the feds are still making the capital investment that makes the system viable—“infrastructure and equipment,” which includes trackwork and rail cars—and Boardman says that “If we are to realize rail’s potential, we will need much higher levels of federal capital funding”!

    This is the way high-speed rail systems were created in Europe: the taxpayers build the systems, which are then subcontracted to private firms to operate, while still being subsidized to a certain extent.

    Any business or project of course can function if it only has to worry about operational expenses and not about investment and start-up costs and long-term maintenance.

  • G1991

    Almost of our infrastructure works that way. Highways are built by Federal and State governments, trucking and bus companies then use that infrastructure. The same goes for the airlines, seaports, electrical grid, sewage systems, water dispersal, waste management, the list goes on.

  • Which brings us full circle to the issue of justifying high-speed rail projects. We know what the existing infrastructure can do and how much it costs to do that. High-speed rail projects are very expensive and the projected passenger counts and costs are always questionable.

  • G1991

    The same can be said for any infrastructure project. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. In fact, inter-city rail ridership is up, transit ridership is up, and transit projects are frequently exceeding ridership expectations. That’s a reflection of travel demand nationwide. The best thing we can do in terms of developing HSR is to learn and seek consulting from our Asian and European friends.

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