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: ##
GOP's Scott Walker wants to knock out HSR in Wisconsin. 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.

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

  1. New York will take their money too.

    Probably for Northeast Corridor improvements other than ARC.

  2. NYC, Philly, Boston, and DC should cheer this stupidity on – take their money for rail we need today. NYC needs it now to make up for the job- killer NJ governor’s showboating ARC cancellation. Build the thing ourselves, then re-institute the commuter tax just for Jerskey.

  3. Scott Walker sounds like one of those conservatives who think that the auto is the perfect form of transportation, so they believe every American should have their own car. “What? Can’t afford a car! Too bad, ride a Taxi. (Who cares if you can’t afford it.)”
    — Dexter Wong

  4. As can be seen by flybys like “GetReal,” a major problem is that nobody understands that highway users do not pay their own way. More sensible Demokrats need to start answering that rhetoric.

  5. For anyone interested in this issue there’s a great discussion at Madison WI’s Isthmus. This article, by the way, is the same one that GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker quotes almost in its entirety on his website. The op-ed piece is anti-HSR, hence the Scott Walker love, but for Streetsbloggers there are some excellent counters to the argument in the comments below. here’s the link:

  6. I challenge this guy Walker to give up his car for a few weeks. Just because most Americans have cars doesn’t mean they can afford them. Providing real transportation alternatives which would make car free living at least an option is like giving out a $8000/year tax cut.

  7. Contrary to the headline, these projects are not high-speed rail at all. They are merely Amtrak lines; i.e. heavy and slow trains, running at low-frequency and requiring huge operating subsidies.

    In other words, a complete waste of money.

    As transit advocates, we can do better. Projects should not get funding just because they happen to be located in swing-states.

  8. I kind of agree, Drunk Engineer, but HSR isn’t a solution for everything. Sometimes it makes sense just to double track, modernize signals, or whatever else is necessary to make trains run predictably so they can achieve ridership.

    That, and Amtrak’s “waste” is something of an exaggeration these days.

  9. Bolwerk, for even one train per two hours, there’s no need to double-track. The most important infrastructure investments are high platforms for level boarding and higher superelevation. Modern trains would also be very important. Good signaling (i.e. some form of ATS/PTC) should come later.

    But even high platforms, which for the record cost in the hundreds of thousands each and would save multiple minutes from the running time, don’t have the same ROI as replacing FRA regulations with more modern regulations. At zero investment, trains could run at twice the cant deficiency they’re restricted to today, increasing speed on curves by 20-30% – to say nothing of the possibility for trains that weigh one third as much as Amtrak’s adapted freight locomotives.

  10. My point is, before HSR, the important thing is to get our rail network working on schedule. I think FRA regulatory changes would be great, but at the same time we’re stuck with the rolling stock we have for a long time. 😐

    In other news about moron Republikan governors, Christie was confronted by a constituent.

  11. The administration can reform the FRA regs pretty much unilaterally; it chooses not to bother. My guess would be that the point people on rail, Biden and LaHood, both come from an Amtrak background and may not have even heard of the regulatory details of how Europe and East Asia outperform the US.

    The existing rolling stock is not always a problem. Its weight is bad, but even then it’s capable of a cant deficiency of about 6-7″, compared with 3″ permitted by the FRA. At any rate, about now is the time to replace many trains. Amtrak just gave Siemens a contract for 70 new heavy, expensive electric locomotives for the Regional. This despite the fact, acknowledged by Amtrak, that in about five years the PTC mandate will kill the FRA’s buff strength rules without any externally imposed reform.

    Very little is done to run trains on schedule, other than excessive schedule recovery. The most important investment would be level boarding, which reduces the schedule risk coming from assisting passengers in wheelchairs; however, no state is proposing level boarding on legacy lines that do not have it, not even California.

  12. I’m actually hoping Walker wins so some of that money can go to the NY/NJ area. Let those cowpokes in fly-over-land wallow in their conservative mediocrity.

  13. “The caption under the first photo should replace ‘Ohio’ with ‘Wisconsin’.”’s all fly over land.

  14. Yep. But to put things in perspective, in Hokkaido 75 mph diesel trains average about 60-63 mph. Running trains is much easier absent FRA regulations.

  15. Hahahaha, way to go Wisconsin. Yeah, voting for this guy was a great idea!

    I’m gonna balance the budget! By giving your money to my rich friends in the form of eliminating their taxes! Because you see, if we do that then… “runs away”

  16. Hahahaha, way to go Wisconsin. Yeah, voting for this guy was a great idea!

    I’m gonna balance the budget! By giving your money to my rich friends in the form of eliminating their taxes! Because you see, if we do that then… “runs away”

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