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Death of high-speed rail sends a message

Train tracks pass under Monona Terrace in Madison, near a site that was proposed for a high-speed rail station. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By James Briggs

staff writer

I came to Wisconsin on a train. I realize that might not be the norm, but it worked for me.

To interview for the job I have now, I boarded an Amtrak a few blocks from my suburban Detroit home and rode to Chicago and then Milwaukee. I would have continued the trip to Madison, since that’s where my job was to be based, but, well, you know. Passenger rail doesn’t run from Milwaukee to Madison.

I was told, though, that it soon would. And the prospect of high-speed rail connecting Madison to the rest of the Midwest factored into my decision to accept the job and move here.

Sure, my wife, Amanda, and I own a car. But it mostly stays parked, as she walks to work and I take the bus. Public transportation — and independence from long driving commutes and rising gas prices — is part of the lifestyle we’ve decided to maintain.

When it became clear Thursday that high-speed rail would not be part of Madison’s near future, I felt a little less welcome here. I don’t mean that in the way some people “threaten” to move to Canada or another state after an election doesn’t go their way.

I simply mean that whatever type of person Gov.-elect Scott Walker wants to bring to Wisconsin, it’s clearly not me. It’s also not for a lot of other young professionals who expect to live in innovative cities.

Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, are less attractive in the absence of a 110 mile-per-hour train line than they would have been with it. You’d struggle to find many professionals who live in those cities — especially business leaders — who didn’t think rail would benefit them at least minimally.

And, as many have pointed out, Wisconsin’s construction work force will not get thousands of rail-related jobs that would have been created.

By the same token, though, I can understand why people in rural areas might not want their tax dollars supporting infrastructure they’d likely never use. They’re trying to support their families without worrying about paying for the livelihood of out-of-town construction workers. I might feel the same way if I lived in a small town, as I did growing up in northern Michigan.

I don’t want to get into an argument about the costs, though, because it’s not my job to say how the state should spend its money. Wisconsin — just like all states — finds ways to pay for its priorities. Clearly, a new train line is not a priority for Wisconsin at this time.

Perhaps Walker is right and rail isn’t enough of a benefit to the entire state. But I would hope Walker realizes alternative modes of transportation are priorities for college students and young professionals. It’s one reason we tend to flock to regions such as the Northeast and West Coast, where, not coincidentally, large, efficient rail systems already exist and are being built or expanded.

Wisconsin had a chance to become more appealing to a younger work force. If the governor-elect succeeds in creating thousands of new jobs, and finding different ways to attract that work force, then he probably won’t hear much criticism over the rail project’s collapse when he’s up for re-election in four years.

For now, though, Walker’s stance has made it less likely that people like me will come riding into Wisconsin on a train — and more likely we’ll eventually leave the state in our cars.

James Briggs is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. He just booked airfare back to Michigan.


  1. This was all Concrete Scott Walker’s work, right? Wrong. Why did Jim Doyle and WisDOT back down so quickly on this the minute Walker got elected? Jim Doyle acted like Concrete Scott instantly became the governor, else this $810 million project with all its jobs could have been well under way and past the point of no return when Walker really does take office in the state of Wisconsin – where the official state motto of ‘Forward’ is now a national laugh.

    America’s 20-million-barrel-per-day oil habit threatens our economy, national security and environment. Consumption will soon rise to 28.3 million barrels of oil a day, with 70 percent of it imported. This makes America increasingly dependent on some of the least stable, undemocratic countries in the world. 40 percent is used by passenger vehicles. The U.S. passenger vehicle fleet alone accounts for one-tenth of world petroleum consumption. Worse, fuel economy of the car/light truck fleet peaked in 1987 and has essentially been declining since then due to outdated standards and increased sales of fuel-wasting SUVs and other light trucks.

  2. Why does the Laborer’s Union care about this issue? Whether trains or roads are built require LABORERS. If you lose the train makes for more roads.

    This guy’s article is built on false premises. He can take Amtrak to Milwaukee then walk two blocks to either the Greyhound or Badger bus depots. Aren’t Greyhound bus drivers unionized?

    Boys and girls: the Madison train is dead. Let’s move on to the next issue now.

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