The Little Engine That Could Have
Once there was a dream of passenger rail service connecting the major cities of the upper Midwest -- including Madison -- with one another via the power of locomotion. Commuters and recreationalists alike burned for the day when the dream would become reality, bolstered by the Doyle Administration's successful jockeying for federal stimulus dollars to make it happen.
And then along came the Walker Administration, which decided that it didn't really want that $810 million, claiming the line would be too expensive for the state to continue to operate after the federal dollars were all used up.
Still, the existing Milwaukee to Chicago line still needs long-overdue improvements and so the Legislature's budget committee on Tuesday voted in favor of spending $31.6 million in "mostly borrowed state money."
That could have been paid for entirely by the federal grant, of course, had the Walker Administration not thumbed its nose at it instead. To top that off, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran the numbers and discovered an even bigger kick in the pants:
Wisconsin taxpayers could wind up paying more to keep existing passenger train service from Milwaukee to Chicago than they would have paid to run new high-speed rail service from Milwaukee to Madison....
...Tuesday's vote doesn't cover all the spending that will be needed to keep running the Hiawatha, a growing service that carried nearly 800,000 passengers last year.
State transportation officials have estimated they would need millions more for locomotives, signals and a new maintenance base, even without expanding service beyond the current seven daily round trips.
All told, the MJS estimates that the taxpayer burden for covering Hiawatha capital costs that would have otherwise been taken care of by the federal grant could end up being as much as $99 million. That is, you'll note, quite a bit higher than the $30 million estimated cost of running the Madison-to-Milwaukee extension of the existing line.
I bet that $810 million is looking mighty good right about now.
This is yet another example of the kind of short-term thinking to which so many politicians are prone. Mass transit is the future, whether they/we like it or not, and investing in it now will save us all money (and pollution, and sprawl) down the line.
And speaking of problems that could have been averted had Walker not decided to throw away free money, I read with great interest a small article in last weeks' Isthmus detailing a proposal by Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. to completely close off three near east side streets.
The thruways -- Blount, Livingston, and Brearly -- currently do not have gates where the railroad crosses and so, instead of spending the money to upgrade these crossings, the railroad would simply like to cut them off to traffic.
W&S says the cost of upgrading the crossings would be $250,000 per -- a daunting price tag, to be sure, but I can't help but wonder if that would have been included in the spending plan if Wisconsin had actually accepted the federal grant money. I'll be looking into that, but in the meantime, I'm not alone in thinking that simply shutting down these three roads is a bad idea.
As a resident of the near east side I can say with some authority that having something approaching a grid is important for access -- both for those of us who live over here and wish to get to other neighborhoods, and vice versa. This would be like putting up a wall between us.
Regardless, I'm especially unimpressed with the current plans for public hearings on the plan. As it stands W&S is scheduled to hold the meetings on September 27 and 28 this year -- at 610 N. Whitney Way.
That is, for those of you unfamiliar with Madison geography, over six miles away from the effected neighborhood. Why on earth would you holding public hearings on something as major as permanently shutting down several streets on the opposite side of town? I can think of a few cynical reasons for it, but I'm hoping that with the right amount of pressure W&S will relocate to someplace that's actually, oh I don't know, on the near east side.
If they don't, how can you expect the public to think anything other than that they're trying to push through this plan with as little daylight shining on it as possible?
Quick redistricting correction
As I sat and watched the Senate debate over the Republican redistricting plan on Monday (which has, unsurprisingly, now passed both Houses on straight party-line votes), one little jab in particular by Sen. Fitzgerald stood out to me.
Fitzgerald was the only Republican to speak in defense of the plan during the debate (all of his fellow GOPers were either silent or absent for the duration). At one point, after Democratic Sen. Jauch spoke passionately against the proposed maps, Fitzgerald questioned his fellow senator's participation in the 1983 reapportionment, which, he claimed, had maps introduced and passed in a meager four days.
Ouch, right? Not so fast -- as Jauch had already examined during the one and only public hearing on the current GOP redistricting plan last week, the '83 maps had been circulating for several weeks as part of the budget. It was eventually removed and passed as a separate bill (in four days), but by that time, there had been, as Jauch stated, "a lot longer discussion about reapportionment than the four days between the bill being introduced and adopted."
Nice try, Fitz. Your plan still stinks.
Vacation, all I ever wanted
Emily's Post will be on hiatus for the next two weeks as I head off on my band, Little Red Wolf, heads out on our first ever tour across the Midwest, as well as take care of some other odds n' ends. Be sure to keep your eyes on the lead up to the recalls, but I'll be back just in time to talk about the big one on August 9 against the six GOP senators. Keep cool and see you then!