Guess who wants high-speed rail money now?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jim Wrinn and Kevin Keefe, don’t take this personally, but your state is really behaving badly. First, the voters of Wisconsin had the bad judgment to elect to the office of governor Scott Walker, who campaigned that he was going to throw an $810 million high speed rail grant back into the face of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. And he did just that. But you also elected to office a bunch of state senators who fled the state for weeks rather than allow the Wisconsin legislature to conduct its affairs. People in the other 49 states were beginning to wonder what you folks in Wisconsin are drinking.
But now comes Gov. Walker back to Secretary LaHood, hat in hand. His administration is asking for ... high-speed rail money! At least $150 million of it, in fact. Ironically, the money LaHood has to distribute is the $2.4 billion that Florida’s governor rejected upon canceling an HSR line between Orlando and Tampa, and Florida’s project was financed in part by money that the same Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin had given back in January. Are you confused?
Okay, let me sort this out for you. The $810 million Walker didn’t want was to have developed a passenger rail corridor between Milwaukee, Watertown, and Madison. The $150 million or so Walker would like back is for improvements on the existing Amtrak-run Hiawatha route between Milwaukee and Chicago, over tracks owned by Canadian Pacific. Seven state-subsidized round trips a day ply this corridor. Walker’s spokesman says the money would be used to buy two more trainsets and eight locomotives, plus renovate the trainshed at the downtown Milwaukee station and pay for capacity improvements that would permit additional frequencies.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel quotes Walker as saying he has always supported improvements to the Hiawatha line. “This is not inconsistent with the position I took in the past,” he says. Maybe so, but to come back so soon after making such a big stink about not wantin’ no dad-burned federal money and ask for federal money from the public official you just insulted strikes me as ... well, there’s a nine-letter word that applies, and it begins with H.
Predictably, the readers of the Journal-Sentinel are having a field day over the governor’s flip-flop. The story went online yesterday, and by this morning, 491 comments had been logged by readers. I’ll give you my take on all this in a bit, but first some pearls of wisdom from the Journal-Sentinel comments page:

“In November the state voted on ridding itself of a train boondoggle, and at the same time elected a boondoggle to live in the governor’s mansion.”
“It's just laughable. Truly laughable. Hopefully we get the money, and then kick this joker out of office.”
“So, now Walker likes trains? Does he not get the irony in all of this?”
”Considering the Hiawatha actually has riders, this doesn't seem like the worst investment. However, on principal, we shouldn't be doing this right now.”
“I can't believe I'm saying this, but thank you Governor Walker for supporting this route. It makes a lot of sense.”
“To the feds: Just say 'no.' . . . I'm as big a supporter of rail transit as can be, but this does not seem to be much bang for the buck.”
My take on all this is that Hiawatha is a proven route that carried 783,000 riders in fiscal 2010. Money would probably be better spent on it than on starting a new service to Madison. But Jim and Kevin, you’ve got to check on the air quality in Madison; it’s making people act strangely. — Fred W. Frailey

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