Tuesday, August 4, 2009

When Did We Vote ‘YES’ on Trains?

My new column on trains:

Have you noticed a steady increase in the number of news reports about trains? Over the past several months and weeks, newspapers have been covered in stories about light rail, high speed rail, federal stimulus money for trains, Spanish train manufactures, KRM, regional transit authorities, a loop around downtown Milwaukee, and routes to Madison, Minneapolis and Green Bay.

When did all of this happen? At what point did Wisconsinites decide we were all in on the train game?

Since the beginning of the year the legislature has been focused on one thing, the budget, and rightly so, it’s the most important vote of every two-year session. Right now, the whole budget mess seems like a Jedi mind trick, a slight of hand, to get our attention focused on billions of dollars of new taxes and not on what was going on with trains.

While the rest of the people in the state were distracted with real world problems like trying to keep their jobs and paying bills, the liberal elites like Governor Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett were off cutting deals on trains. As Wisconsin companies were leaving Wisconsin for greener economic pastures, Governor Doyle was in Spain making new friends. Those friendships led to a foreign train manufacturer landing a $47 million no-bid contract to build high speed rail cars for use between Milwaukee and Chicago. Sounds like a sweetheart deal for the Spanish company, but now taxpayers have to pay for track upgrades to make the new cars truly “high speed”.

That’s the thing with trains, the start up costs are just the beginning. Cars, new tracks, track upgrades, maintenance, future route expansions all cost money, and lots of it.

For a state that raises taxes year after year and is carrying over a $2 billion deficit into the next budget, I have one question: Should we be spending money on things that could end up costing us hundreds of millions of dollars down the line? If we can’t afford to pay for transportation priorities, like reconstructing the Zoo Interchange, can we afford to take on another huge financial burden?

These are questions that need answering. The issue of transportation, including rail, needs to be debated and voted on. After all, when did we vote “yes” on trains?

Where is the strategic plan on rail? It appears there are independent plans on rail systems offer by individual interest groups, but how do these plans link together? The fact is, there is no twenty-year plan on rail. These issues have never been debated. The individual proposals were negotiated by two groups sitting on the same side of the table. The same thing is going on behind the scenes of other rail related headlines.

Just last week, Governor Doyle traveled to Chicago and put Wisconsin in the middle of a mad grab for federal cash targeted at train projects. The only chance to get a piece of the pie was to tout our own big plans for rail and to sit down with the Mayor Daley to cut a Chicago-style deal. Those deals rarely benefit anywhere but Chicago. The Daley-Doyle deal was no different. The Governor agreed to support Chicago-centric proposal paid for by federal stimulus money in the hopes that Wisconsin might get some of the leftover pocket change to chug north.

If any federal money does make its way here, it will never cover the long term costs of the project. Wisconsin taxpayers will be paying the bills in perpetuity.

If, at some point in the future, we determine this is what the state needs then so be it, but we need to think it through. We need to debate the issues, lay out the facts and make an honest decision if rail is the right way to move our state forward. Before we get “all aboard,” we need to ask ourselves if the way we are spending money will give us a solid return on our investment.

We can’t afford to get it wrong. The stakes are too high.


madj said...

Is there some sort of legal precident that can be invoked here? I hope you Repbulicans have bills ready to go to rescind all this mess the Dems created, especially the usury of the rise in auot insurance rates, these choo choo trains, the reinstatement of the QEO, the reexpansion of welfare and the telephone tax increases, just to name a few.

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