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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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You thought Wisconsin losing high-speed rail was bad?
It actually just got worse
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Credit:David Michael Miller

It's hard to get your head around the rapid turn of events that has taken Wisconsin out of the lead for a 21st-century transportation system and plunged us into the Dark Ages.

Let's get caught up.

In 2009, then Gov. Jim Doyle joined forces with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to convince train manufacturer Talgo to locate in Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee invested $10 million for site improvements at the old Tower Automotive plant in a neighborhood that needed the jobs and the reinvestment. Wisconsin ordered two trains for the state-sponsored Milwaukee to Chicago Hiawatha service. In addition, Talgo had an order for two trains for use in Oregon and Washington that would also be built in Milwaukee.

Then Doyle famously secured $810 million in federal stimulus money to build higher-speed rail from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison with the promise of eventually connecting the line to the Twin Cities. And, of course, those train sets would have been built in Milwaukee too.

A year later Barrett vied for the governor's office against Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. The train plan was a centerpiece of Walker's campaign, in which he essentially ran against the interests of his own county. Walker portrayed the train as a boondoggle, but he was essentially using it as leverage to exploit resentment in the rest of the state against its two largest cities.

Walker won and trains lost. He quickly moved to kill the Milwaukee to Madison part of the project, but he claimed to support upgrades to the Hiawatha line. Meanwhile, Talgo was already well along in the construction of two sets of trains to serve that line. In fact, the state has already paid Talgo $40 million for those trains, and it paid another $12 million to other vendors, for a total cost so far of $52 million.

But Walker, apparently backed into a corner by extremist legislators who were even more anti-train than he was, decided to renege on even the Hiawatha trains.

So Talgo filed a claim against the state for an additional $66 million in unpaid invoices and other losses due to the deal gone bad. That claim was recently denied by the state as expected, and a formal lawsuit is likely.

To add insult to injury, in May the completed trains were unceremoniously moved from the now abandoned Milwaukee Talgo plant for Indiana, where it is possible they will become part of the Wolverine line connecting Chicago to Detroit. And, in fact, Illinois is paying for an extension of Amtrak service to Rockford, and plans are in place to also go from Rockford to Dubuque. From there it's not hard to imagine completing the line to the Twin Cities and bypassing Wisconsin altogether.

Walker claimed that he opposed the 100% federally funded train because of the annual operating costs to the state, which amounted to around $7 million. But now the state is on the line for as much as $118 million, for which it will have received nothing at all. In other words, for the dollars the governor has put at risk, the state could have funded the new train operation for about a decade and a half.

Had Walker not been elected governor, the Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison service would have started a year ago. Sleek new trains would have been connecting us and providing economic development opportunities not just in Milwaukee but in other places along the line. A train station near Monona Terrace would be bustling and contributing to a revival of that portion of Madison's downtown. Even more importantly, Wisconsin would have been literally on the map as the first place in the country outside of the northeast corridor to be served by new higher-speed passenger rail.

Instead, Wisconsin now ranks a consistent 37th in job creation under Walker, the Talgo plant and its Milwaukee jobs are gone, the Madison station never happened and the ancillary development around it is on the ropes, our own tax dollars are on their way to build the same kind of system in other states, and we're still on the hook for as much as $118 million. Even if we don't end up paying out that much, every dollar that is lost will be lost completely.

Our tax dollars were vaporized simply because Scott Walker found it politically useful to exploit hard feelings between rural and urban Wisconsin. And how exactly did it end up benefiting someone in, say, Grantsburg that Milwaukee and Madison got left holding the bag and every taxpayer in the state is shelling out millions for nothing at all?

Before this state administration can get serious about asking for more tax dollars for transportation (a cause I'm not entirely unsympathetic to) it needs to explain why we should trust that administration when it turned an $800 million positive investment in our transportation future into a $100 million liability with nothing to show for it.

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

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