Wisconsin, Ohio Governors-Elect Press Ahead to Pull the Plug on Rail

Wisconsin Governor-Elect Scott Walker has pledged to kill the planned high speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. If current Governor Jim Doyle doesn’t beat him to it.

Doyle was instrumental in bringing $810 million of federal stimulus dollars to the state to build the rail line. Walker campaigned on a “No Train” platform, and Doyle has, apparently, had a hard time figuring out how to proceed with the rail project during the remainder of his term.

Walker Goes to the Huddle After Doyle Flip-Flops

Scott Walker won the election on an anti-train platform. Image: ##http://www.wuwm.com/programs/news/view_news.php?articleid=7176##WUWM##
Scott Walker won the election on an anti-train platform. Image: ##http://www.wuwm.com/programs/news/view_news.php?articleid=7176##WUWM##

First, the weekend before the election – with Walker polling ten points ahead of his Democratic opponent – Doyle quietly signed a deal with federal officials committing the state to spend the entire $810 million on the rail project. He didn’t make his actions public until the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel confronted him about it. The agreement could make it more expensive for Walker to pull out of the project, if he had to pay back money that had already been spent.

Then, as Walker was talking to lawyers about how to react to the governor’s actions, Doyle suddenly halted construction on the rail line. The state DOT asked contractors and consultants to “temporarily interrupt their work for a few days,” according to Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi. Work was already underway on upgrading tracks and designing a station in Madison.

The action brought into sharp relief the rail line’s potential impact on jobs. Contractors immediately started planning layoffs. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Mayor – and Walker’s opponent in the governor’s race – Tom Barrett indicated he’s considering taking legal action if the death of the rail line ends up taking out a newly renovated manufacturing plant that the city spent $3 million on. The plant was going to make the trains that would run on the line.

Walker has said that, despite the fact that the federal money covers the full cost of construction, the operating expenses are too much for the state to bear. Those are projected at about $7.5 million annually, though federal subsidies could cover the lion’s share of that as well.

The proposed 3C passenger rail line would connect Ohio's biggest cities. Image: ##http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/12829##Cleveland Leader##
The proposed 3C passenger rail line would connect Ohio's biggest cities. Image: ##http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/12829##Cleveland Leader##

The Wisconsin State Journal wrote in an editorial yesterday that it’s disappointing to see that Walker is more interested in hiring lawyers to kill the rail line than in hiring contractors to build it.

“Instead of huddling with large groups of attorneys,” the editorial says, “Walker should be looking for ways to gracefully veer from his campaign pledge and accept that it would be unwise – silly, really – for Wisconsin to reject nearly $1 billion in federal funds.” The State Journal had endorsed Walker in the election.

Ohio’s Kasich Follows Suit

Within hours of winning the Ohio race for governor, John Kasich declared that state’s high speed rail plan “dead.”

“That train is dead,” he announced. “I said it during the campaign. It is dead. Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future.”

Plenty of other states would be happy to take the $400 million of federal money off Ohio’s hands to build rail capacity elsewhere, if Kasich doesn’t want the money. Even with a new Republican House, it’s unlikely the federal government would change the rules to allow Ohio to use the funds for anything other than passenger rail – even the freight rail he prefers.

ODOT still hopes to convince the governor-elect of the merits of keeping alive the 3C high speed rail plan to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Ken Prendergast, director of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio and 26-year veteran of the fight to bring rail to Ohio, also expressed hope that with more information, Kasich will change his tune.

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