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Scott Walker’s high-speed blunder

When Scott Walker used a balanced budget bill to strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees, it was defensible if you believed — as the Wisconsin governor did — that unionized public employees had destroyed Wisconsin’s finances. Walker’s rejection last November of U.S. Dept. of Transportation money for a high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison, however, cannot be defended. Not after the governor pushed — and the state legislature will soon approve — an upgrade of the Chicago-to-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” rail line.

As Jason Stein and Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel make clear, the $31.6 million upgrade could have been covered by the $810 million offered by the Obama administration to build the Madison-to-Milwaukee line.

The federal grant would have covered not just the Milwaukee to Madison line, but also upgrades of the entire Chicago-to-Wisconsin Amtrak corridor. Walker signaled that he didn’t want the money, because Wisconsin taxpayers had to pay train-operating costs. The Journal Sentinel, though, reports that those operating costs would have totaled $30 million over 20 years, which is not a large amount for a major infrastructure improvement connecting key cities and populations in a state of more than 5.5 million people.

In other words, Wisconsin taxpayers must now pay more money to upgrade the Chicago-Milwaukee line in the next year than they would have paid for the 20-year operation of a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison line.  This is to say nothing of the jobs that would have been created by building and maintaining a Milwaukee-to-Madison line or the indirect economic benefits of connecting the Badger State’s two major cities. The LaCrosse Tribune came down hard on the governor, approvingly quoting a Democrat legislator who said Wisconsin’s rail policy is based on “Walker math.”

Walker’s original decision to reject federal money came less than a week after his election and it appeared a symbolic denunciation of anything Obama-related, not a substantial policy move. The choice has proven short-sighted and it has also scrambled federal rail policy. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood haphazardly handed out federal rail grants this March, withholding cash from states where new GOP governors had antagonized Obama.

Wisconsin, needless to say, got none of the money they requested for the Chicago-to-Milwaukee upgrade.

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