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High time for action on high-speed rail

By Paul Snyder

For as long as I’ve been with The Daily Reporter, transportation groups have been warning lawmakers, contractors and media outlets about shortfalls in the state’s transportation budget.

I started in 2005, the same year the Legislature repealed gas-tax indexing.

The next year, a legislative committee identified an annual shortfall of almost $700 million for state highway projects. Meanwhile, the transportation budget — which is supposed to be a segregated pot of money — has sustained multi-million dollar Legislative grabs to fill financing holes in non-transportation related areas.

Besides the continued industry warnings, the other constant in all that time has been the lack of ideas in the Capitol to generate new transportation dollars. Non-politicians are happy to discuss the pros and cons of tolls, a wheel tax or even a return to gas-tax indexing.

FOR ALL THE DAILY REPORTER’S STORIES ON HIGH-SPEED RAIL, VISIT OUR PROJECT PROFILE PAGE

However, those running for (or holding) office aren’t always comfortable jumping into those politically treacherous waters.

Interestingly, the impetus to talk seriously about finding new money might not be sparked by an unaffordable major project or a horrific bridge collapse.

Instead, it looks like it will come in the wake of the state’s acceptance today of $822 in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail development.

Critics can (and will) decry the numbers the state does not yet know associated with the rail costs, but there are two right now that are pretty important: $7.5 million and minus-$30 million.

Solid numbers on operating costs are still being worked out, but a preliminary Amtrak estimate projects a $7.5 million annual operating expense from the transportation budget. As of right now, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports that budget is $30 million in the hole.

Contractors are already concerned about the effect on roadwork spending, and if the state does not do something to get more money into the transportation budget, the project pool likely will look pretty shallow.

The state’s decision today doesn’t have to be perceived as a choice between roads and rail, because a little Legislative intuition could produce the means to pay for both.

But until then, a lot of people are going to wonder if Wisconsin can afford either.

Paul Snyder is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. Yep, you read right, he just used “Legislative” and “intuition” in the same sentence.

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