December 13, 2011

A Boondoggie Indeed.

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

A little over a year ago, Wisconsin won a competitive award for $810 million in transportation funding the federal government to improve our rail system. The grant did three things: (1) it allowed the state to extend the Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha line to Madison, (2) it funded the construction of temporary and permanent maintenance plants; and (3) it improved our treatment of the disabled by funding the necessary accessibility conversions required for compliance with the federal rules on access for the disabled.

Governor Walker spent his entire campaign saying he did not agree with high-speed rail. The moment he won the election, he started insisting that Wisconsin reject the funds. In December 2010, before he ever took office, he insisted that he would not pursue the project and did not want the money because it would cost too much to maintain. The situation is similar to someone offering you a car, paying the cost of getting the car to you and building a maintenance facility for you to have it repaired; as the recipient, all you need do is pay the insurance and pay for gas and repairs when the time comes.

Realizing he had yet another ill-conceived plan, Walker went back to the federal government earlier this year and requested $213 million of the money he rejected to pay for upgrades to the Hiawatha line and the cost of a maintenance facility. Of course, the money had already been redistributed and his request was denied. It is a shame that the Governor failed to think this matter through because both items would have been covered by the $810 million that was awarded in December 2010.

Now let’s fast forward to last week’s Joint Finance Committee meeting. The Department of Transportation filed a request for $5 million to plan and build a new maintenance plant to service two trains that are being built in Milwaukee by Talgo, a Spanish train manufacturing company (former Governor Jim Doyle awarded the contract to Talgo in 2009). Talgo’s contract with the state requires us to provide a maintenance facility for Talgo workers to service the trains. By a vote of 8-3, along party lines, the Joint Finance Committee approved borrowing $2.5 million to choose one of three preset options:

  • Order the DOT to study the option of creating and sustaining jobs for maintenance of the trains in Chicago on a permanent basis, which would cost a large amount of money (at least four GOP members expressed as the best option due to the concerns about cost); or
  • Completely do away with the project and try to sell the trains that hold more passengers than the cars we currently have (which does not consider the consequences related to the bonds that were purchased with the expectation of having a project); or
  • Build a plant in Milwaukee, where we have had one of the highest levels of unemployment in the state for the longest period of time.

Let us not forget that the project would have been covered by the bonds set aside for this purpose.

Republicans took issue with spending $53 million on the maintenance facility, stating it would provide only twenty-four permanent jobs. Aside from the fact that their job number is suspect, not building the facility could cause the state to default on its contract with Talgo, which will cost taxpayers a substantial amount of money, and, more importantly, it would promote jobs in ILLINOIS when we need them in WISCONSIN. Additionally, if the DOT chooses option (2), Wisconsin will have spent $2.5 million for the study and will also have to pay Illinois for its maintenance of our trains.

Governor Walker made a colossal error when he rejected the federal funds. Now, we have to reach into our own pocket to cover the cost of jobs in ILLINOIS! It was a waste of resources, pure and simply. Regardless of what the future holds for Governor Walker, his rejection of the federal transportation grant will go down as one of the most monumental mistakes in our state’s political history. He may be on the right side of the aisle, but without a doubt he is, AGAIN, on the wrong side of history and this issue.