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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Let them eat commuter rail
Local leaders draw the wrong conclusions from gas crunch

In "Normal Land," consumer rage over record-high fuel prices has 70% of Americans supporting calls to "Drill here, drill now."

However, in Madison, a community comfortably insulated from any reality known to working-class Americans, the soaring price of gasoline is being used to justify a $255 million commuter-rail boondoggle.

Last week, Madison and Dane County leaders, with an assist from state government, submitted an application seeking federal financial help to build a $255 million commuter-rail system between Middleton and Sun Prairie. Annual operating costs for this system, which former Dane County Executive Jonathan Barry correctly calls "an amusement ride," are estimated at $10 million.

Rail proponents cite "isthmus geography" to justify a new commuter rail line. There was a time when the downtown was the heartbeat of Madison. All the major department stores, along with all movie theaters, were downtown. Many Saturdays in my youth were spent riding the bus downtown to burn money on records, movies, girls. Times change.

Downtown retail (other than student-fueled retail on State Street) died decades ago. Private businesses fled to the west and east sides and beyond, leaving attorneys, lobbyists, politicians and state employees to inherit Madison's once-vibrant core. Do you think the rising cost of gasoline will drive them from their Lexuses, Mercedes or Priuses in favor of taking a choo-choo to and from work?

Regular folk are already struggling to pay for gasoline, put food on their table, pay their taxes, hang on to their home or pay the rent. Are they clamoring for commuter rail and higher taxes? No.

Home foreclosures are soaring and home-equity ratios (the new American piggy bank for frivolous spending and instant gratification) are at the lowest level since the end of World War II. Nationwide, household debt stood at $7.4 trillion (103% of household income) in 2000 and then nearly doubled to $14.4 trillion in 2007 (139% of income). The stock market is battered daily by unrelenting bad news from the financial markets and the House of Crude.

Taxpayers, along with state government, are hurting.

Wisconsin state government is poorly poised to handle a serious economic downturn. Unlike most other states, Wisconsin has no substantial budget stabilization fund to cushion the bad times. Unless or until we can clone honest budget brokers like Mike Ellis and Rob Cowles, it's one Band-Aid budget repair bill after another.

It took the recent draining of Lake Delton and the flooding of many small southern Wisconsin communities to uncover the fact that Wisconsin's dam repair funds have been depleted. Wisconsin is more concerned about getting from today to tomorrow.

But local and state political leaders think this is the time to push for an expensive commuter-rail system that few want and even fewer would use.

Most people prefer that government first take care of the basics before moving on to dessert. Dams we can rely on, properly maintained roads, new roads for increasing traffic volume, effective schools, trash picked up, safe streets, clean water, 911 calls that trigger a response. We now have ample evidence that government is falling short in this fundamental mission.

County Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz has been promoting a North Mendota Parkway for years and is finally making progress, but why must expanding road capacity in Dane County have to be akin to mounting a crusade to recapture the Holy Land?

Neighborhood activists like Orchard Ridge resident Bill McCarthy and WIBA radio host Mitch Henck are advocating a new expressway bypass south of Madison. This would divert long-distance truck and auto traffic off Verona Road and the West Beltline (easing congestion and reducing air pollution) by funneling that traffic towards the I-system and on to Milwaukee or the Fox Valley.

Madison drivers would overwhelmingly support such a move, but the idea remains stuck in neutral.

Why? As with domestic oil exploration and drilling, a determined minority continues to thwart the will of the majority - who, for all practical purposes, have abandoned the political battlefield. This emboldens the fleas on the tail that wags the dog to use high gasoline prices to wage war on cars, the internal combustion engine and common sense.

Even Barack Obama says his concern with rising gasoline prices is simply the rapid increase, not the price itself. If Democrats want to defend high gasoline prices, their political death wish may exceed that of Republicans in November.

Can't drill, can't explore, can't build nuclear (America generates 20% of its energy from nuclear, France 80%), can't build roads, can't build more refinery capacity. America hasn't built a new refinery in 35 years, and we've paid a price for inaction. In 1985, America imported about 15% of its crude oil needs; today we import around 35%. A superpower not in control of its own energy production will not be a superpower for long.

Ditto for Madison and Dane County exceptionalists.

Rural Dane County is growing faster than Madison. The most aggressive and exciting business growth in Dane County is happening outside Madison. Enrollment in suburban school districts has been soaring for 25 years while Madison's school enrollment has remained essentially flat. None of this is accidental or surprising, but the powdered-wig crowd downtown remains clueless.

The growing disconnect between the public mood and the political ruling class will produce the inevitable political confrontation. But the battle won't really be joined until the passive majority begins to replace those currently making the decisions with others who better understand the rising tide of anger and frustration over business as usual in Dane County and beyond.

Rick Berg is a freelance writer and political commentator.

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