Follow the Money on Governor's Train Purchase

Have you ever noticed that the two major political parties take turns wearing out their welcome?

After their historic victory in 1994, it took Republicans 12 years to do that — a bungled war based on a false premise certainly helped — but Democrats may be fast-tracking their next demise. Nationally, the President's health care reform plan may have "Blue Dog" Democrats nervous, but closer to home Governor Jim Doyle is busy making himself a target-rich environment.

The latest curiosity is the governor's decision, combined with the Legislature's acquiescence, to spend $47 million on the purchase of two, 14-car train sets from the Spanish train manufacturer Talgo. The purchase, done without competitive bidding and with the state in very tenuous fiscal health, could be the latest example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

In exchange for the train sets, Talgo purportedly will put a new assembly and maintenance facility somewhere in Wisconsin, but it also will be interesting to see if any campaign contributions from Talgo or any entity connected with it make their way to Doyle, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, or one of the interest groups that work on their behalf. That's the cynical view, but in today's politics nothing would surprise me.

A more benign explanation is the governor's fascination with rail transportation. Having no doubt been dazzled by the capabilities of real high-speed trains on a February trip to Spain, where he just happened to meet with Talgo officials, Doyle subsequently agreed to purchase the train cars, which will expand capacity on the popular Milwaukee to Chicago Amtrak service.

Other foreign train manufacturers have expressed regret that they never got a chance to make a competitive bid for the train cars. While the governor contends the state was not legally required to seek bids for this purchase, Wisconsin taxpayers have every right to feel the train manufacturers' pain.

The trouble with so-called high-speed trains is that they are not really allowed to go full throttle. The average speeds envisioned for the proposed Madison to Milwaukee Amtrak route are ridiculously close to the speeds my Hyundai Accent reaches on Interstate-94, not the 200-plus miles per hour we're told such trains really travel. All things considered, including the productive work time a train can accommodate, that may be good enough to justify a Madison to Milwaukee leg, but it's hardly good enough to convince someone from Chicago to travel to the Twin Cities by train rather than plane if the Madison to Minneapolis route is ever built.

In any event, can we stop mislabeling this service as "high-speed." Compared to a Trek bike, I guess so. Compared to our cars, not really.

For a variety of reasons, Democratic Party politicians like Doyle and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz have fallen hopelessly, romantically in love with trains. One can envision the two of them in the basement of the governor's mansion, out of sight of their significant others, gleefully shouting "Vroom!" like little boys as their model train chugs around the track.

TYCO would no doubt be pleased, but I just hope the two of them aren't experiencing their second childhood at taxpayer expense.