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.
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.
How will people get from Milwaukee to Madison? Most of them will probably continue to make the hour-long drive on Interstate 94, just as they would have if the train had been built. Others will take the Badger Bus—an upscale coach service (with WiFi) that does the round-trip for $35.
And what did Wisconsin avoid? It’s hard to know exactly. But recent developments in Minneapolis might provide a clue. Last year saw the completion of the “Northstar,” a 41-mile commuter rail from Big Lake, Minnesota, to Minneapolis. It was touted, with Field of Dreams expectations, as the answer to the area’s commuter woes. Train proponents dismissed skeptics as unimaginative grumps who couldn’t understand how popular the train would become.
So Minnesota built it. But they didn’t come—at least not in the numbers the state had projected. Ridership is 20 percent lower than estimates—and fewer riders mean fewer operating dollars. (Those numbers might actually be atypically high, as the Minnesota Twins’ successful season accounted for some of the ridership.)
“That’s not how we built our expectations,” Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Oh well. Might be a warning.
Rick Scott, the Republican governor-elect in Florida, also ran opposing high-speed rail for his state. He has not yet rejected the federal funds altogether, but has said he is committed to preventing Floridians from paying later for a train built with stimulus funds now. Good luck with that.
Florida’s share is another $1.2 billion. In all, that’s $2.4 billion in potential savings that the administration is determined to spend despite the fact that those closest to the projects don’t want them.
The political implications of the disputes are huge: Ohio decided the 2004 election, Florida decided 2000. And though Wisconsin had been trending Democratic, it voted overwhelmingly Republican in November.
If the next election is, like the last one, a referendum on Washington, high-speed trains could be the third rail for the Obama administration.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.