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Anti-Rail Candidates Take Aim at High Speed Dreams in the Midwest

Here's another installment of our series on key governor’s races. Here's the news from Wisconsin and Ohio. Check out our previous coverage of California, Texas, Maryland, Colorado, and Tennessee. Let them serve as a reminder to vote on Tuesday.

“I’m Scott Walker. And if I’m elected as your next governor, we’ll stop this train.”

Scott Walker means a TKO for HSR. Image: ##
Scott Walker means a TKO for HSR. Image: ##

That’s the rhetoric from Wisconsin’s Republican gubernatorial hopeful. He calls the high-speed rail line planned to link Madison and Milwaukee a “boondoggle,” estimated to cost Wisconsin $7 million to $10 million dollars a year in operating costs. Stopping the rail line – which is eventually meant to link Chicago to Minneapolis – would mean sending $810 million in federal rail construction funds back to Washington. Walker says President Obama’s “radical environmental agenda” is killing jobs. [PDF]

As much as $100 million could already have been spent on the rail line by the time Walker would take office. But he says that won’t stop him from putting the brakes on it. He’s suggested using the money for other transportation projects, but the federal grant is earmarked for rail. If Wisconsin doesn’t want it, some other state will claim it.

Walker has years of experience fighting transit. As Milwaukee County Executive, he’s tried to cut funding for buses and by refusing to allocate more funding to transit, he forced a choice between service cuts and fare hikes.

Democrat Tom Barrett would keep the trains rolling. Image: ## Times##
Democrat Tom Barrett would keep the trains rolling. Image: ## Times##

His Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, supports the rail project as part of his broader promotion of public transportation. Barrett has a 98 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. He’s pushed for clean sources of energy and worked to convert the city’s vehicle fleet to hybrid and biodiesel cars.

Wisconsin’s transportation budget comes from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. It’s frequently been raided – to the tune of $1.3 billion over the last eight years – to pay for unrelated projects. Meanwhile, the state has documented almost $700 million in annual unmet transportation needs.

Both candidates are against the raids, and Republican Walker even goes so far as to support a constitutional amendment banning such behavior. But the candidates’ proposed solutions to the crumbling infrastructure are worlds apart. Walker’s a roads-and-bridges guy. Barrett says increasing transit use will take the burden off roads and reduce wear and tear on highways.

Walker has also suggested re-routing sales tax revenue from new vehicle purchases to the transportation fund. That could add up to about half a billion dollars. (However, he wants to repeal the corporate income tax, which brings in about $1.6 billion every two years. How that will help balance the budget is anybody’s guess.)

He’s also in favor of tolled express lanes on highways but doesn’t want to install tolls that everyone would have to pay. Barrett is against all tolling.

Walker was one of two GOP gubernatorial candidates singled out by U.S. DOT chief Ray LaHood recently for threatening to put the kibosh on the high speed rail plans. The other one, former congressman John Kasich, is running for office a few states over, in Ohio.

“It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to states like Ohio and Wisconsin if their leaders had decided they didn’t want to be connected to the rest of the country [when the Interstate system was being built under President Eisenhower],” LaHood said.

Indeed, the push for better rail in Ohio faces similar prospects to the project in Wisconsin. Kasich says the 3-C line (connecting Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati – and, oh yes, Dayton) is “one of the dumbest ideas” he’s ever heard. Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, running for re-election, has worked hard to get $400 million in federal stimulus funds for it.

Strickland, left, and Kasich share an awkward handshake before a debate. Image: ## Dispatch##
Strickland, left, and Kasich share an awkward handshake before a debate. Image: ## Dispatch##

Kasich does make one good point when he says the line would be far from “high speed.” It’s expected to average just 39 mph on the 258-mile route, counting stops. Officials say they think they can push it up to 45-55 mph, but that’s still not impressive to people who go 70 on the highway.

According to Jonathan Hiskes at Grist, the problem might have something to do with the fact that Ohio has never had a public transportation system that was particularly useful to its residents, so they might have a hard time imagining what one might look like. After all, noted Hiskes, “it's the seventh most populous state, but it ranks 40th in transit spending.” Recent service cuts in Cleveland will only drag the state down more.

Kasich has waxed poetic about his environmental commitment, saying in 1999, "Stewardship of the environment is nothing less than a moral obligation -- because God made it and gave it to us to properly manage. It will be part of the bequest we make to our children and grandchildren."

Nice rhetoric, but Strickland has actually walked the walk, trying to green an industrial state with wind and solar energy and efficiency measures.

If the wind keeps blowing the way it’s blowing, Tuesday will be a bad day for the rail dreams of Midwestern Democrats and transit advocates. According to the most recent polling, in Ohio, Kasich leads Strickland by a six percent margin (with a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.) And in Wisconsin, Scott “No Train” Walker leads Tom Barrett 52 to 42.

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