The Magazine

Railing Against Big Government

Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker said no to Obama. But the taxpayer didn’t win.

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When Wisconsin voters elected Scott Walker governor in November, they did so in no small measure because of his pledge to kill a stimulus-funded $810 million railroad connecting Milwaukee and Madison. Walker campaigned extensively on ending the project, which he deemed both unnecessary and wasteful. Completion of the “high-speed” rail, he argued, would obligate the state to cover shortfalls and operating costs for years—something foolish for a state with a $3 billion deficit. There was little market for the rail service, imagined as one segment of a longer Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis route. By the end of the campaign, voters overwhelmingly disapproved of the project—which Walker had used effectively as a local illustration of the kind of wasteful government spending that voters across the country rejected on November 2.

Railing Against Big Government

GARY LOCKE

John Kasich made a similar argument in Ohio. A high-speed rail project there, also initially funded with some $400 million in stimulus money, was to connect Ohio’s three biggest cities—Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. But there was little public enthusiasm for the project, which wouldn’t even have allowed an Ohio State fan to travel from Cleveland to Columbus and back on game day. And, as in Wisconsin, Ohio would have been on the hook for operating expenses and cost overruns. Kasich, like Walker, promised to kill the boondoggle.  

This left the Obama administration with a dilemma. In the rush to put together the $814 billion stimulus package, the administration had packed it with funding for projects—like electric cars and high-speed rail—that had long been favorites of the we-know-better crowd in Washington. Voters of two Midwestern states, judging from the elections and polling on the issue, had looked at the administration’s $1.2 billion stimulus gift and said, with characteristic Midwestern politeness, “No, thank you.”

The Obama administration wasn’t having it, these voters not understanding what’s good for them. So they insisted: You’ll take the damn trains—or else! Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told both Kasich and Walker within days of their election that if their states didn’t want the money, other states were eager to get their hands on it. In other words, if you don’t want to waste our money, we’ll find someone who will.

Walker proposed that the money be repurposed to fund Wisconsin’s real transportation needs: improving the state’s bridges and highways. Nearly 20 percent of Wisconsin bridges have structural deficiencies and are in need of replacement or rehabilitation. The Hoan Bridge, which connects the city of Milwaukee to its southern suburbs, has a net in place to catch debris falling from the bridge so that it doesn’t damage property or injure people below. In a recent study of the state’s infrastructure needs by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Wisconsin’s bridges received a “D+” and the highways got a “C”—grades which had slipped from the previous study in 2003. On highways the report noted that “without additional funding, this grade will decrease in the future.” And on bridges, the report found that “additional funding beyond current levels will be needed to continue reducing the backlog of deficient bridges.” 

Kasich, a noted deficit hawk, proposed that Ohio return the $400 million to the federal government to be used exclusively for deficit reduction. Three Wisconsin congressmen, including Representative Paul Ryan, introduced legislation that would do the same thing with Wisconsin’s money. Together, that would mean a savings of $1.2 billion—not a huge amount in the context of the federal budget, but not insignificant for an administration suddenly concerned (at least rhetorically) about deficits. 

But the administration, with a vice president who loves Amtrak even more than the sound of his own voice, is determined to spend the money on trains—somewhere, somehow. So last week, LaHood announced that the stimulus money would be going to California and other states. 

What about the jobs in the Midwest? When Wisconsin was awarded the money, back in 2009, Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat and early Obama supporter, boasted that it would bring 13,000 jobs to the state. Can Wisconsin afford the potential loss? 

Probably. Doyle came up with the number 13,000 by counting as a “job created” every year worked by every person remotely associated with the project. So when John Smith, an engineer, worked on the train for five years, Doyle counted that as five jobs created. A Doyle spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that they “were just following the recommended federal formula.”  

So how many permanent full-time positions would the $810 million rail project have created? According to the state’s own revised projections—55. 

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