Gov. elect, Madison mayor at odds over high-speed rail future (UPDATE)
Scott Walker says make no mistake about it: He has not waffled in his opposition to high-speed rail.
“I don’t think we can afford it,” Wisconsin’s governor-elect said Monday.
Walker put to rest speculation that he wavered in his opposition during a phone call last week to Talgo Inc. representatives, who had said they would leave Milwaukee if the train line was killed.
The Spanish company recently opened a factory in Milwaukee to build the trains.
Walker noted Monday that Talgo already has made an investment in the Milwaukee factory.
“Would they be willing to make another investment somewhere else?” he said.
Despite Walker’s strong statements, at least one high-speed rail proponent, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, said he will not admit defeat. He said he is urging the business community to step in and persuade Walker to reverse his position.
The Madison mayor said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrat who lost the gubernatorial race to Walker, has urged business leaders to do the same. Barrett did not immediately return calls.
“There’s nothing surprising in what I’ve heard Scott Walker say,” Cieslewicz said. “I wouldn’t expect him to be elected on Tuesday and reverse himself on Monday.”
Walker has based his high-speed rail opposition on the annual $7.5 million state cost to operate the system. The figure is based on estimates from Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration.
“I looked at every other rail system around,” Walker said, “and it’s almost certain that the number will be significantly higher.”
He said he would not change his mind even if he is given new figures.
“Every time there’s a little push back, (train proponents) say, ‘Maybe there’s another way to reconfigure the numbers,’” Walker said.
Cieslewicz said the state’s monetary contribution to the system is minor.
“The Department of Transportation has an annual budget of $3.2 billion a year,” Cieslewicz said. “They probably spent $7.5 million this morning. If that’s the problem, let’s sit down and address the issue.”
Cieslewicz said the business community, the federal government, Madison, Milwaukee and Walker could come to an agreement.
“I can’t believe we would allow that small subsidy to stand between us and creating 4,700 construction jobs,” Cieslewicz said, referring to WisDOT’s estimated peak construction employment during the high-speed rail project.
A Madison rail station, he said, also could create millions of dollars in ancillary development. The city has been planning for a possible station at the state’s Department of Administration building in downtown Madison.
The only other stop planned for the high-speed line is in Watertown. Alderman Brad Blanke said the community has spent $35,000 on plans for a station.
“I’ve been somewhat opposed to moving forward at all until there’s some security at the state and federal levels,” he said, “because I don’t want the city to dump money into a project that’s dead on arrival.”
Brookfield’s political leaders have delayed approval of a station there because of the uncertainty of high-speed rail’s future.
Walker wants to redirect the federal high-speed rail money, he said, to state road projects.
There may be some precedent for that strategy. Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, said last week that federal money set aside in the early 1990s for a light-rail system in the Milwaukee area eventually was used for other projects.
Some of that money, Norquist said, was used for the Sixth Street viaduct project, and about $90 million is slated for a downtown trolley in Milwaukee.
Still, Norquist was critical of shifting money away from mass transit.
“If you spend tax money on mass transit, it’s socialism,” he said. “If you spend tax money on highways, it’s free enterprise.”
If Walker can’t spend the money on road projects, he said, it should be returned to the federal government and used to offset the deficit.
“I am not conceding that is the only option,” Walker said.