Gov.-elect Scott Walker, hoarse from his election night celebration, was optimistic on Wednesday that Wisconsin’s high-speed rail project could be stopped and that highway construction projects will move forward under his administration.
Just days before the election, state and federal administrators quietly signed a deal committing the state to spending all $810 million in federal stimulus money earmarked for the state to use on the Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line.
While at first blush it would seem the signed commitments would end the discussion, Walker said that may not be the case.
“I believe there are a couple of legal options for us,” Walker said during an interview. “We’ve had offers from lawyers coming out of the woodwork. They think we can slow it down or stop it entirely.”
Now that the Republicans will control both houses of the state Legislature and the governor’s office, reversing the agreements may be possible, he said.
Walker noted that he’s had experience undoing done deals.
He pointed to a smaller scale victory he won in 2003, soon after he was elected Milwaukee County executive.
“Remember the ‘Blue Shirt?’” Walker asked. “They said that was a done deal, but it’s not there, is it?”
Walker was referring to a $220,000 sculpture of a blue shirt that the Milwaukee Public Art Commission approved for the parking structure at General Mitchell International Airport. Some critics called the blue shirt a slap at Milwaukee’s working class past; others just didn’t see its artistic value. The flap made national news.
“It was ridiculous,” Walker said. “It didn’t fit with its surroundings.”
Eventually, an art dealer brokered an agreement and the sculpture was not displayed at the airport.
As for road construction, Walker said he’s looking for ways to move forward with projects despite the $250 million shortfall in the state’s transportation budget.
“I will be looking at what alternatives we have right now and what alternatives we have for the future,” Walker said. “We do have options.”
To raise transportation money, Walker said he is considering transferring vehicle sales taxes the state collects from the general fund to the transportation fund, and implementing toll express lanes on highways. Walker said he opposes traditional toll roads such as those in Illinois where all drivers have to pay to travel, but he supports those that allow drivers to pay to use less congested express lanes.
He also said he supports a constitutional amendment that would prevent raids on the transportation trust fund. Gov. Jim Doyle used money from the fund during his administration to support the general fund.
Residents in 54 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties voted Tuesday on a measure supporting such a constitutional amendment. All passed it.
“As governor, I will not raid the transportation trust fund,” Walker said. “I also support a constitutional amendment that would ban the practice in the future.”
Walker also touched on sewage dumping done by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. As governor, he will not have direct control over the dumping, but he could have influence.
He said he supports a gradual separation of the sewers in the portion of Milwaukee and Shorewood where a single sewer carries both storm water runoff and wastewater. The 26 other communities served by MMSD all have separate sewers — one for waste and one for storm water.
While MMSD officials say separating the sewers is too expensive, Walker disagrees.
“Back in July 2004 I had a short-, medium- and long-term proposal for dealing with the problem,” he said. “The long-term suggestion was that every time they tear up a street for another reason, they should put in a twin pipes.”
He also said homes that have downspouts connected to sewers should be required to disconnect.
“You can’t go back in time, but if that had been started back then, we’d be well on our way to solving those problems,” Walker said.
Unemployment and getting the economy rolling are his top priorities, he said, adding that he has frequently spoken to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a fellow Republican who Walker said came into office under similarly difficult times.
“He turned the state around,” Walker said. “He created 285,000 new jobs. That’s where my plan to create 250,000 new jobs came from. It’s been done before.”