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.
“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.”