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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Overcast
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Scott Walker's high-speed fail: Train service would have started now
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Train cars are referred to as "rolling stock." Now, thanks to Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislators who run this state, Wisconsin is thought of as a "laughingstock."

Had Tom Barrett won the election for governor in 2010, right now, June 2013, would have seen the opening of Madison's high-speed rail station, connecting us to Milwaukee and Chicago immediately and the Twin Cities eventually.

And it wasn't just a rail station adjacent to Monona Terrace that the train would have made happen. The station could have been connected to a new hotel that was already needed for Monona Terrace. It could have given new life to the old Municipal Building, which might have been a grand entrance to that hotel. It could have spun off a new underground parking ramp, a bike parking facility, a public market, a modern city office building and private, tax-producing development associated with it, and a transit center connecting high-speed rail with buses, cabs, rental cars and bike sharing.

Aboard the train, here is what Wisconsin travelers would have experienced, according to Trains magazine (PDF): "The coaches have Wi-Fi, at-seat electrical outlets, drop-down seat trays, information displays, transparent overhead luggage racks so travelers can keep an eye on their carry-on bags, end-car racks for larger suitcases, porous ceiling panels for sound absorption. Travelers don't have to punch or kick a door panel when walking between cars; an electronic eye opens the door for you."

The Talgo trains were ordered by Gov. Jim Doyle from the cutting-edge Spanish train maker as part of an agreement in which Doyle leveraged their final construction in Milwaukee. They are the most sophisticated in the world. They would have put Wisconsin on the map (literally) and created jobs in Milwaukee to build the cars for markets all over America. They also would have created more American jobs to supply them because under the Recovery (stimulus) Act, 60% of every part used in the trains had to come from U.S. manufacturers. This would have marked Wisconsin as a full participant in the new economy.

Now, it's good-bye to all that. Shortly after Walker killed the project in December 2010, the Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial that ended with the line, "Thanks a billion, cheeseheads." California was one of the states that benefited from funds redirected from Wisconsin's folly. Those who fret about our national image need only take one look at that to understand that all the earnest local "Advance Now" strategies in the world can't make up for a backward-looking and aggressively divisive state government.

Thanks to Doyle, Talgo was to build six train sets in Milwaukee. Two were destined for Oregon and two for the new Milwaukee-to-Madison line. The other two were to replace tired old trains used on the popular Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Chicago. Now the two Oregon trains will soon begin service there, and the two Wisconsin trains built for the Hiawatha (dubbed, heartbreakingly, "Wisconsin 1" and "Wisconsin 2") sit in mothballs while Talgo sues the state for breach of contract. The trains for the Milwaukee to Madison route were never started.

Because the new Hiawatha trains were already built under a state contract (they had nothing to do with the Milwaukee-Madison route), the state is on the hook for around $50 million it has already paid for sleek new trains Walker stubbornly refuses to take delivery on, and for a related maintenance facility. And Talgo claims it is still owed another $10 million or so. Walker would rather vaporize all that money than have Wisconsinites experience the comfort of modern train travel and start to ask why he rejected 100% federal funding to extend it to more of the state.

And it only gets worse. One hundred and twenty-six more of these rail cars might have been produced in Wisconsin. Thanks to Walker's rejection of high-speed rail, they are now being built in Illinois. High-speed rail would have created thousands of good-paying, family-supporting construction jobs in Wisconsin for the rail line itself and hundreds, if not thousands, of permanent jobs in railroad car construction in Milwaukee even after the line was completed.

Walker rejected rail expansion to Madison and improvements in the Milwaukee to Chicago service in a cynical and sadly effective political maneuver to play Milwaukee and Madison off against the rest of the state. Walker had a three-step process: divide, conquer and destroy Wisconsin.

Combined with the rejection of billions of federal tax dollars that could have been invested in the expansion of Medicaid for 85,000 Wisconsinites, Walker's actions and those of the Republican Legislature amount to plain malfeasance in office. They would divide us for political gain, knowing full well the cost in jobs, both directly and from the loss in reputation for our folly.

Trains magazine put it succinctly: "And so, as one state changes its mind -- and entrenches its taxpayers in asphalt, foreign oil, and traffic jams -- two brand-new trains stand ready to show the country a better way, where the future of travel rides in speed and comfort, on rails of steel."

That state would be Oregon, not Wisconsin.


Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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