The message on rail got lost in the politics

Nov. 16, 2010 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

On Monday, there was a rally of liberals and labor unions urging Wisconsin’s incoming governor to abandon his plans to abolish high-speed passenger rail in our state. The number of jobs at stake is huge and in today’s economic flatlands would boost investment in all kinds of secondary ways with such a huge infrastructure project: the industrial supply chain, local services in a neighborhood where over one in three folks are looking for work and/or cannot make ends meet on their existing wages, along with future commercial/residential real estate projects near stations.

To the groups who put the rally together, and from my own viewpoint, the whole project seems like a no-brainer. If Wisconsin rejects the federal funds, the cash will not be returned to taxpayers in Milwaukee, Waukesha or Waterloo. They simply will shift to another state, eager to build and benefit from our shortsightedness.

So why do opponents feel so righteous about their demand to kill the Milwaukee-to-Madison project and how did we get to the point where Milwaukee’s mayor, after just running for governor, is now threatening to sue to keep things on track and to prevent train maker Talgo from moving to Illinois?

First and foremost, it is painfully clear that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation did not employ the right mix of politics and public support. Too often, it came across like Doyle and Obama administration folks were outright playing partisan cards with “no way you can stop us” statements and other threats that might have been valid but seemed to the average person like a game.

Then there was the controversy over where in Madison the stations would be built, which seemed to again look, mistakenly, like this was a pork barrel project for Madison as opposed to a key piece of 21st-century infrastructure. And to make things more complicated, the whole Oconomowoc depot back and forth was a mix of juvenile politics and silly planning.

Finally, the entire point of this type of transportation initiative has been lost: the Madison leg is supposed to help finish a seamless train ride from Chicago to Milwaukee and onto the Twin Cities, which boasts a metropolitan population of roughly 3 million people. Expanding capacity for passenger rail is not about replacing the Badger Bus with gold-plated railways. It is about connecting the upper Midwest without using a highway or airport. More rail, by definition, means less road congestion, better travel times for the trucking industry and takes into account that fuel prices are only going to go up in the next 50 years (we are currently bumping against $3 a gallon).

Put simply, commerce benefits from improved mobility options, longer lasting roads save taxpayer dollars over time and given that the airline industry is about to go the way of General Motors, we ought to soberly consider the economic and cultural benefit to having Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St. Paul linked by a vehicle that goes over 100 mph and does not get stuck in traffic.

We cannot reverse past mistakes. This important public investment needlessly got snared into goofy political games, talk radio rhetoric and finger-pointing. OK, the fun is over, fellas. Anyone who has sat through I-94 construction, a bad accident, heavy truck congestion or has taken that socialist trip to Chicago on Amtrak knows that high-speed rail is not only necessary, it will lead to more jobs and will connect Dane, Jefferson, Waukesha, Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties in a way that will help us compete with the Twin Cities and Chicago for future gains in population and prosperity.

State Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) represents the 9th Assembly District.


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