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Rail politics: Freeways aren’t free either

Scott Walker ran for governor with a no-train message. Photo: Scott Walker for Governor

In hard economic times, it’s difficult to believe that two states are together rejecting more than a billion dollars in federal money. Ohio and Wisconsin will not undertake high-speed rail projects that were in development as late as last November. New leadership in both states claimed the rail projects would forever burden their state budgets. In the morning light, however, their objections may face fresh scrutiny.

Last July, President Obama’s Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, stopped in Wisconsin touring the country with a plan he said was only rivaled by President Eisenhower’s interstate-highway system. “High-speed rail is coming to Wisconsin,” LaHood said. “There’s no stopping it!”

Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, didn’t agree. Walker became the “No Train” candidate as he campaigned across the state before Election Day in November. He put up a website, And, he had words for Washington: “It’s outrageous for Secretary La Hood to suggest that your administration can force Wisconsin to continue building a train it doesn’t want and cannot afford,” Walker wrote in a letter to the president. “Almost as outrageous as the fact that the decision to saddle Wisconsin taxpayers with untold millions in operating and maintenance costs, forever, was never debated or voted on by the Wisconsin legislature.”

Walker promised to turn down $810 million in stimulus dollars for a completely federally funded train line from Milwaukee to Madison that would eventually connect Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Walker went on to win the election with 54 percent of the vote; the first Republican governor in Wisconsin in eight years.

While his opponent argued throughout the campaign that the state would lose thousands of jobs without the multimillion dollar project, Walker said the money should be used for highways instead. “More than 60 years ago, the federal government had the foresight to recognize that the American people no longer wanted to be limited by fixed-track passenger rail,” he wrote in a second letter to Washington, this time to LaHood. “The massive investment in our federal interstate highway system spurred the greatest economic expansion in our nation’s history. For us to now go backwards on transportation makes little sense. I believe that continuing responsible investments in our road infrastructure is a key to growing our economy and creating jobs.”

LaHood wasn’t buying it. Plus, the money could only be used for high-speed rail. The transportation secretary took back nearly all the $810 million before the newly elected governor could even return the check. In Ohio, new Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, also ran against high-speed rail in favor of roads and bridges. Like in Wisconsin, the Obama administration, again, took back the money.

Contrary to what people think, roadwork isn’t inexpensive. Governors Walker and Kasich won, in part, talking only about the great expense of high-speed rail in contrast to the practicality of highway maintenance. USPIRG (the federation of state public interest groups), however, has a study that puts the cost of roads and bridges in perspective. For starters, the tax on what you pay at the pump doesn’t begin to cover the cost of the country’s transportation system. According to the report, “Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called ‘user fees’ by $600 billion.”

Deficit spending and borrowed tax dollars from the country’s general fund have made up the difference.

In Wisconsin, the state projected high-speed rail operating costs at $16.5 million a year. After fare and concession revenue, the taxpayers would be on the hook for about $7.5 million. Gov. Walker said the state could not pay the added money to keep the trains running year after year. But, a new estimatedropped the state obligation below $5 million. And of that money, the feds could pick up anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of the cost. Compare that to the cost of an average road construction project in northeast or southeast Wisconsin last year: While some are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the majority are in the millions and well exceed whatever it would cost to maintain the Milwaukee-to-Madison line for a year.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation does, in fact, project a $300 million budget shortfall over the next two years. Walker is right to worry. But it is a road and bridge problem – not a rail problem. Take a look at the chart below:

Credit: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

*The 2010 and 2011 amounts are budgeted figures. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

Even after Wisconsin stopped increasing the state gas tax in 2005, highway spending (blue line) has still increased and remained in the billions annually. Take note of the red line for state rail funding, though. In 2010, it jumps over $800 million. In 2011, as promised by Walker, it takes a considerable dive.

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  • Anonymous

    Freeways are far from free. Not just in cost, but in the labor-hours lost driving and stuck in traffic. It is ironic that a “pro-business” “small government” “conservative” like Scott Walker touts the Interstate System; it helped bankrupt hundreds of private businesses in the form of private railroads and affiliate businesses. It amounted to a massive government take-over of our transportation infrastructure.

  • Interurbans

    Maybe if Eisenhower would have bushed for and built HSR instead of the Interstate Highway System we as a country and certainly our cities would have fared much better than the way we as a country have turned out. The Interstate highway and its Socialistic base took public money to compete agents an efficient privet transportation system and made it unprofitable due to the ease of travel and fright movement over public highways. Now 50 years later the efficient privet and profitable rail and public transportation is gone as we are now dependent on imported oil and stuck in traffic. We are now spending billions to partially rebuild what we threw away in my lifetime.

  • Southerner

    Indeed, the highways should have been built the same way the railroads were built, with private money. Yes, the rails went where they went often at the prodding of the government, but the capital was from the private sector. (Airports and the Air Traffic Control system should have been done that way too, as well as waterways). In such a scenario I belive that the frieight railroads would have been more than competative, and that the passenger train would still be a primary mode of choice. Mr. McNamara does a disservice tho when he states that the feds would pick up 80-90 percenet of operating costs — if I recall correctly, that can be done using the CMAQ fund, but it only lasts for the first three years. Then you really are on your own.

  • Another Southerner

    All transportation modes are subsidized, and all can provide economic benefit. The trick is to match the strengths of each mode with the appropriate market. For example, a business traveler can travel more efficiently from Chicago to Los Angeles by airline. This takes into account the cost of the travel and the value of his time. But the same business man may choose to take a high (or higher) speed train from Chicago to St. Louis for many of the same reasons – the cost of the travel combined with the value of his time, plus the added benefits of more comfortable accommodations, better food service, and the use of a greener mode of transportation. On the other hand, the same business man may reasonably choose his personal auto to travel from one suburb to another to go shopping due to the convenience and relatively low cost. Then again he may choose a light rail or commuter rail service to travel to and from his office in a large metropolitan area to avoid congested highways. So again, all modes have value, convenience and economic benefit in their particular niche, and all are subsidized. Although I do not know this as a fact, I suspect that without subsidized transportation systems, and depending solely on private investment that demands full direct payment for use of a mode, most of us would do very little traveling because we could not afford the out-of-pocket cost.

  • a former city councilmember

    In addition to interstate highways not being “free”, folks need to know that local governments SUBSIDIZE county and city roads big-time! The motor fuel taxes go to help build and maintain federal and state roads, but not county and city roads. The property tax payers and the sales tax payers, many of whom do not or cannot drive, make sure the drivers have a free street system – paving, cleaning, signing, policing, etc. the streets, while drivers scream about how wrong it is to subsidize mass transit. Let’s try to get our heads on straight about all this!