Governor Walker's Train Gaffe Costing Wisconsin Big Time

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The Capital Times (Madison, WI)

Governor Walker's Train Gaffe Costing Wisconsin Big Time

In this 2009 file photo, a model of a high-speed train is seen outside of a press conference where Gov. Jim Doyle announced Wisconsin's partnership with the Spanish train manufacturer Talgo. But after he was elected governor, Scott Walker nixed the plan. (Jeff Schorfheide/State Journal)

It didn't get a lot of press — two Milwaukee bloggers noted it — but Talgo, the Spain- and U.S.-based train manufacturer, closed its factory on Milwaukee's north side last week and moved the last of its train sets out of town. They will probably be sold to Michigan.

The irony is that here was a manufacturing company that was enticed to Wisconsin thanks to a bundle of federal dollars but was chased away by a new governor who professed his main interest was creating jobs and making Wisconsin friendly to business. Yes, go figure.

Instead, he kissed goodbye several hundred jobs that would have been created in one of Milwaukee's poorer neighborhoods and gave the federal government back $810 million that was to pay for expanding passenger rail service from Milwaukee to Madison and create roughly 4,000 construction jobs to boot.

It is not only one of the biggest financial blunders in the state's history, but ranks high for its utter cluelessness. And its says volumes about the governor's judgment.

Talgo is now suing the state for $65 million for the state's reneging on its Talgo contract, and Wisconsin has to foot the bill for a multimillion-dollar maintenance facility and handicap accessibility upgrade at the Milwaukee station, all of which would have been covered by the $810 million federal grant.

These expenditures would have covered dozens of years of the supposed $6 million annual maintenance cost Gov. Scott Walker used as an excuse to scuttle the rail upgrade. As is the case for so many of his claims, that $6 million was inflated by a factor of 10. The actual cost to the state would have been more like $600,000. But there's a reason Walker routinely gets "pants on fire" ratings from the fact-checking PolitiFact.

So here we are with a robust passenger rail service restricted between Milwaukee and Chicago and a one-train-a-day Amtrak whose only big-city stops in Wisconsin are in Milwaukee and La Crosse.

Perhaps that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the trends that are taking hold in the country, apparently unbeknown to those who run our state.

Newspapers around the country devoted nearly a full page to the topic last Sunday under a headline that read: "A love affair on fumes?" The Associated Press story was referring to the fact that America is driving a lot less these days, and where once 16-year-olds couldn't wait to get their hands on the family car, less than 70 percent of 19-year-olds now have a driver's license.

Some of the decline — 10 percent since 2004 — is attributed to greater reliance on bicycles, but there's been an enormous increase in the use of commuter and passenger rail as an alternative to owning cars.

Further, according to the research group WISPIRG, many young people are opting to find jobs where they can get to work without owning a car.

But, no, we'd rather build more highways, spend a billion bucks on Milwaukee's zoo interchange, and borrow money to pay for it.

That, folks, is a pretty poor plan.

Dave Zweifel

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

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