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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Gov. Walker's fateful decision on rail
Rejecting federal train funds will haunt the state for decades to come
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What was the single most important decision Gov. Scott Walker made in his first year of office? Hands down, the consensus judgment would be undermining the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

But 20 or 30 years from now? Wisconsinites will probably point to Walker's fateful decision to reject an $810 million federal grant to build a passenger rail line connecting Madison and Milwaukee.

Chances are that the logic for the train will be evident to most everyone by then. The I-94 corridor linking Dane County with Milwaukee and Waukesha will likely be the state's 21st-century economic engine. In turn, it will be a vital link in what technology booster Tom Still has called the "I-Q Corridor" - the 400-mile stretch of interstate connecting the heavyweight metropolises of Chicago and the Twin Cities.

"That corridor contains some of the nation's leading research universities, well-educated tech workers and thriving tech-based companies at all stages of development," Still, who's president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, wrote a few years ago.

Now imagine an updated rail system carrying people from the Twin Cities to downtown Chicago in less than six hours - even faster than driving and on a par with a complicated airline connection.

Oops! Don't consider it. That scenario is precisely what Walker killed when he gave back the $810 million - federal funding that would have paid the full capital costs of connecting Madison to Milwaukee.

Says Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger: "That decision will hurt the state of Wisconsin for decades to come."

Critics like Walker castigated the rail plan as a boondoggle - unwarranted by consumer demand, unaffordable for taxpayers and destined for huge cost overruns.

But as Mike Centinario, a young planner for the village of DeForest, points out, "The argument against the train was so present-oriented as opposed to future-oriented." In other words, critics focused on the immediate costs and complications versus the longer-term economic gains from strengthening the transportation ties between the state's two largest markets.

Last year, I wrote about Centinario and his wife, Rachel, as prime examples of the growing number of households where one member works in Waukesha or Milwaukee and the other in Dane County ("Look East, Madison," 11/4/11). They settled in Lake Mills to ease their east-west commutes, and he says he sees a lot of people also living the dual commute life.

Centinario asks the right question: Why not reinforce the flow of talent and enterprise between Madison and Milwaukee by providing train service? "Tremendous tax base could have been generated along the train stops," he says.

Watertown, a Jefferson County community of 23,000, wanted to do just that. The city had ambitious plans for a train-depot development and a new industrial park on the rail line, and it was fielding queries from housing developers who saw the train opening the community to high-end commuters, according to Krueger.

"Conservatively we thought the train would generate $20 million in new development in the first two or three years," says the mayor. "It would have created an economic boom not just for Watertown, but for the region."

Krueger, who was probably the savviest of area mayors in viewing the train as an economic catalyst, blames the "big blowhards" of talk radio for turning the public against the train in Wisconsin. "We will live to regret the day we didn't build it," he predicts.

As earthshaking as Gov. Walker's move to break the public employee union was, there's a good chance the unions will bounce back in one form or another when the political winds inevitably change. Killing the train seems likely to be the more lasting legacy of Walker's first year in office.

Congress has already slammed the door on new rail funding, though planning continues for Midwest rail on the not-unreasonable assumption that Congress will turn the spigot back on when its budget problems are resolved.

But it's worrisome that Madison has already been dropped from the proposed Milwaukee to St. Paul route approved in November. It follows Amtrak's existing Empire Builder tracks north of Dane County through Columbus and doesn't dip to the south to accommodate Madison, as the earlier plan did.

"We have nothing against getting to Madison, but we're not going to see that $800 million," says Daniel Krom, Minnesota's director of passenger rail, who cites the obvious - that the spurned money would have been spent on upgrading Madison's tracks.

Dropping Madison from the route also eliminates the city from the environmental impact study. Not good. Krom says that Madison can later be restored to the review, but one gets the sense that Madison's rail future is steadily dimming.

The governor can't be blamed for everything. Rail proponents were curiously inept at times. The two stabs at deciding on a Madison station missed the mark. The ignored First Street site is arguably superior to either Monona Terrace or the airport.

Rail supporters also never hammered home the long-term economic importance of linking Madison to the great cities of the Midwest. Instead, the patina of coolness and an anti-car animus were buffed the most. It should have been about jobs and smart growth.

"Failing to invest in the infrastructure that undergirds the economy is a very dangerous move," says Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Policy and Law Center. He rattles off the names of prosperous 19th-century American cities that decayed when their transportation links became obsolescent.

How odd that a pro-business Republican governor didn't understand that dynamic.

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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