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Madison prepares plea for high-speed rail

Train tracks pass under the Monona Terrace in Madison, near the site of a proposed station for the high-speed rail project. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has asked to meet with Gov.-elect Scott Walker to discuss the project. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Train tracks pass under the Monona Terrace in Madison, near the site of a proposed station for the high-speed rail project. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has asked to meet with Gov.-elect Scott Walker to discuss the project. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By James Briggs

Madison’s Economic Development Committee this week plans to make a new pitch for high-speed rail, but committee members sound defeated even before putting pen to paper.

The committee plans to write Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz expressing support for the project. Panel members wanted to address it to Gov.-elect Scott Walker but were discouraged from doing so by Common Council President Mark Clear, who said all communication on the issue should come from the mayor’s office.

“This is as politicized as anything gets right now,” Clear said. “I think it’s important the city speaks with one voice.”

Madison’s internal debate over how it should proceed reflects the frustration of a city that spent the summer planning for rail-related development — including a new parking structure and public market — yet can now only watch as the project seems to be slipping away.

Cieslewicz has asked for a meeting with Walker, but said the incoming governor, a strong opponent of the project, has yet to respond. And other city officials feel helpless to push the project forward.

The proposed high-speed rail station in Madison.

The proposed high-speed rail station in Madison.

“We, as a committee, are so neutered that we can’t weigh in on an issue with that kind of significance for Madison,” said Victoria Selkowe, a member of the Economic Development Committee.

Madison has opted for a toothless approach to advocating for the rail project, banking on hope that Walker might change his mind. Cieslewicz said he will not pursue legal options, as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has discussed doing if train maker Talgo Inc. leaves Wisconsin for Illinois.

Cieslewicz, who only six months ago championed the proposed rail station at the Department of Administration Building, four blocks from the Capitol, is now asking Walker to let the dust settle on his campaign before making final decisions.

“What I’d really like the governor-elect to do is just take some time and listen to all the voices,” Cieslewicz said. “He’s identified jobs as his first priority, and that’s absolutely right. It’s very hard to turn down thousands of jobs, hundreds of which can start right away. So, what I’m calling on him to do is just take some time.”

Walker, though, has made statements almost every day since the Nov. 2 election indicating his opposition to the high-speed rail project. Any softening of his stance would represent a sharp turn from Walker’s most publicized campaign promise.

If Cieslewicz is Madison’s only voice on high-speed rail, though, it has mostly gone unheard. Mario Mendoza, a business liaison for the city, said only back-channel communication has taken place so far, and it has produced nothing substantive.

“As Alder Clear has indicated, it’s perhaps a highly politicized, but also delicate trajectory we need to pursue,” Mendoza said. “There are many people behind the scenes helping us continue to make the case for high-speed rail.”

If other city officials or committees were to make independent attempts to reach out to Walker or other lawmakers, Mendoza insisted, it could do more harm than good.

“One of my roles is to direct the city’s intergovernmental relations,” Mendoza said. “We’ve had situations where other parts of City Hall communicated directly with folks at the Capitol, and that has created problems.”

Deferring to the mayor’s office and Clear’s request, the Economic Development Committee has agreed to stay silent, but not all members are happy about it.

“I think what I’m struggling with is I can see a lot of the behind-the-scenes effort, but I think publicly is where we need to be on this issue as a committee,” member Julia Stone said. “I think we’re losing a battle of publicity, not politics.”

Mostly, though, Madison seems to be just losing, and city officials are frustrated about how little the state’s second-largest city can do to change that.

“We’re behind the engine on this,” said Joseph Boucher, vice chairman of the Economic Development Committee. “We’re the caboose. The decision’s been made to have it if we can get it.

“I’m not sure what we think makes any difference because what Walker decides is what he’s going to decide.”


  1. “Any softening of (Scott Walker’s) stance would represent a sharp turn from Walker’s most publicized campaign promise.”

    For “Concrete Scott” Walker to stick to that bullheaded “promise” after all the subsequent pressure from not only statewide protests here but from all the more-visionary governors of more-enlightened states to get Wisconsin’s $810 million in job-producing federal funding would mark a different kind of “softening”, and not of Walker’s stance but rather his skull.

    What happened to the courageous, progressive “Fighting Bob LaFollette” Wisconsin that other states used to admire and emulate?
    “Sarah Palin is the current spokesman for the attitude that the problem with American politics is that there are too many smart and informed people running the country.” – Richard Reeves, LA Times, November 29, 2010

  2. If Walker won’t budge, then why not sure the *******? It’s a breech of his duty as governor to fail to support the State of Wisconsin. Failing to understand the benefits of rail is an obvious dis-service to the state. He has one chance to get this right!

  3. Dr. Stanwyk,

    Scott Walker based much of his campaign on killing the train. He is doing exactly what the majority of the electorate asked him to do.

    I expect the “rallys” have served to deepen Mr. Walkers resolve. To have such poor showings at these “staged” events shows where the majority stands.

    The government needs to stop spending money we do not have for services that most will not use.

  4. Irwin – that doesn’t make it right. Unfortunately, people have been mislead and do not understand this issue.

    Gang, do what you can.

    Get in touch with Scott Walker and ask him to change his bizarre and anti-business position on rail. It is time for America to get the 21st century infrastructure we need and deserve. YES on high speed rail.

    Campaign Headquarters: (414) 453-2010
    Campaign Fax: (414) 453-2015

    BE POLITE. This should not be a political issue. Once they understand the details,Republicans and Democrats alike understand the need for modern rail infrastructure. Thank Scott for his time and don’t call him a flip flopper when he changes his mind.

  5. Doc,

    I respectfully disagree. Wisconsinites voted to stop wasteful spending and get our financial house in order. For Scott Walker to change is position would doom him the same way “Read my lips… No new taxes” doomed George H.W. Bush.

    While Scott Walker looks forward to looking at all aspects of the state budget Jim Doyle works to hamstring efforts by making lame duck commitments that will last for years after he leaves office.

    Get in touch with Jim Doyle and ask him to back off rushing to finalize state union contracts that have been expired for 2 years. Times have changed and budget cuts in all areas must be considered.

    Here is a link to electronic communication:

  6. Mr. Walker is correct. The train is economically impossible. There is no one yet that has been able to put enough potential riders on it to have the train support itself. It is about economics and human behavior.

    Who will use it? Business people won’t. Time is more valuable to them. Students? heard of Badger Bus? It can go anywherer and can change a schedule as demand indicates. Vacationers? C’mon there won’t be enough demand on a daily basis to justify this train.

    You could say that it is for the future. Maybe, But, currently the estimated price of a fare is greater than a car ride to Madison. If the automobile expense goes up, (gas increase) wouldn’t the cost of running the train also increase? If the fares are held steady the taxpayers pick up the tab.

    I say abandon it now before we have another bike path to create.

  7. Hey, I like bike paths… an $810M one would be sweeeet. 🙂 I for one currently ride my bike from Milwaukee to Madison more often than I would ever consider taking the train. (No kidding)

    In all seriousness, I am with with you PJB.

  8. The US DOT announced that it will redirect high-speed rail funds from WIsconsin and Ohio to California, Florida and elsewhere. So Scott Walker got it his way. Will this short change the entire state by taking away decades of economic growth that may have developed along the rail line? Only time will tell.

    As for subsidies, almost every single rail line in the world including the most successful ones require government subsidies to function. There is only one line in the world that is self-sufficient. It’s a high-speed rail line in Japan. That doesn’t mean that high-speed rail isn’t worth the investment. Quite the opposite. History shows that wherever an investment has been made in passenger rail, economic growth is seen ten to twenty years down the line and beyond.

    Scott Walker says the demand isn’t there for the link between Madison and Milwaukee; that the line wouldn’t have enough benefits to attract people to the train away from their cars. He says the density just isn’t there in Wisconsin. He may be right. But that’s an extremely narrow view of this project that will not happen now. It was part of an eventual link between The Twin Cities and Chicago. Having all of those people pass through the Wisconsin would have produced a monetary benefit to the state. There would have been increased tourism in Madison and Milwaukee. There would have been an increase in business investment between the cities where stops were proposed. Its an undeniable effect of infrastructure development. I would borrow a line from Field of Dreams. “Build it and they will come.” History shows this to be the case anywhere else passenger rail lines have gone in. It also is proven through the investment in our interstate highway system. Yet, it cost many more dollars per passenger mile to maintain the highways in Wisconsin than it would have cost to maintain the rail link between Madison and Milwaukee. Regardless of who paid for the operating costs, economists, both Republican and Democrat, say you get much more bang for your buck percentage wise with rail investments.

    Scott Walker is not wrong in saying that money is needed for onther infrastructure projects in Wisconsin. But his decision to kill the high-speed rail link dooms the state to relative economic stagnation. If you like the status-quo, then I guess that’s fine.

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