Wisconsin has become a battleground over the Obama administration’s plan to create a national system of high-speed rail. Of the $8 billion in HSR grants awarded to the states in the stimulus bill, $810 million of it went toward a high-speed route between Milwaukee and Madison.
Ironically, this Wisconsin “high-speed” route would only achieve speeds of 79 mph initially and 110 mph by 2016. As a Cato essay on high-speed rail points out, HSR aficionados don’t even consider 110 mph to be true high-speed. In fact, passenger trains were being run at speeds of 110 mph or more back in the 1930s. And those “high-speed” trains didn’t prevent the decline of passenger trains after World War II.
The states already have dedicated revenue sources for federal highway aid matching requirements (also 20 percent). With state tax revenues flat due to the recession, where would the money come from to pay for high-speed rail projects? Proposing new taxes to fund high-speed rail would probably be political suicide. And most state policymakers recognize that shifting money away from more popular programs to pay for high-speed rail won’t be any more politically rewarding.
The issue is even affecting elections in states that are in line to receive federal funding for high-speed rail. Scott Walker, a Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, recently said he’d send back the $810 million in stimulus funds the state has received for a rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. Walker appears to understand that his state has more pressing infrastructure needs and that high-speed rail could become a fiscal black hole.
Amtrak reform legislation in 1997 stipulated that its board be replaced with a “reform board” of directors. The Clinton administration nominated, and the Senate confirmed, politicians that included the then-governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, and the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith. Mayor Smith tried to create a route that would have lost millions linking Atlanta and Dallas via Meridian. Governor Thompson succeeded in creating a route from Chicago to Janesville, Wisconsin. It was eventually discontinued after Thompson’s departure from the board due to low ridership and financial losses.