The governor’s train drain

There are lots of nice things you could say about Gov. Scott Walker. He appears reasonably well groomed. He recognizes one employee at a time, which is infinitely more intimate and far less crass than recognizing them all. He converts oxygen to carbon dioxide expertly, which is a tremendous boon to our state’s algae and the invasive species that rely on it. (Okay, everyone does that, so my mentioning it may just be uncalled-for snarkiness on my part – still, I’d like to think that the breath of Democrats nourishes only lilacs, sunflowers, and nutritious whole grains specially grown for needy Third World schoolchildren.)

Unfortunately, what I can’t say about Walker is that he’s forward-thinking. Or backward-thinking, for that matter. It’s almost as if he doesn’t remember turning down that $810 mill in high-speed rail money shortly after riding a wave of super-awesome anti-Obama sentiment into the governor’s office. But he did just that, so can he really be surprised that the feds recently turned down his request for $150 million to upgrade the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha Amtrak line?

Of course, to give the governor his due, he explicitly noted that there are differences between the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail line (whose construction would have been paid for through $810 million in federal largesse) and the Milwaukee-to-Chicago line that he sought to improve with his recent funding request.

Here’s a thumbnail summary of the governor’s thought process, such as it is, from The Cap Times:

“Walker maintained the state could not afford the ongoing operating costs for service between Madison and Milwaukee. The estimate for those annual costs was $7.5 million, but could have been reduced greatly under a federal cost savings plan.

“Walker has expressed support for the Hiawatha line because he says it serves a proven market. The line showed a 6.1% increase in passengers last year to 783,060 riders.”

Okay, so while at first blush this may look like a case of a dyed-in-the-wool train hater limply turning on his heel and becoming a qualified train enabler, it’s really just a case of a guy picking favorites based on what the world looks like to him right now. But it’s the “proven market” part of the governor’s analysis that really should stick in our collective craw.

Um, Governor, how exactly did the Milwaukee-to-Chicago line prove itself? Well, first someone had to build it – probably over the objections of the train bashers of the world who refuse to acknowledge the business, job-creating, environmental, fuel-conserving, and safety benefits of rail. (Too often left out of this discussion is the fact that more than 30,000 people die on our roads each year, and that if people rode the rails more often, a great many of them would be saved.)

And, of course, if we ever do face a fuel crisis of the kind that peak-oilers predict, we’ll want to be prepared, else faraway lands such as Chicago and Minneapolis become the exclusive travel hotspots of well-heeled sophisticates like Donald Trump.

Governor, we understand that money is scarce and that cuts need to be made, but good surgeons operate with scalpels, not Wiffle bats and pointy sticks. Priorities have to be set, and the future vitality of our economy (not to mention our energy security) needs to be considered. For instance, you might want to spend less on salaries for unqualified sons of prominent lobbyists and more on your official Web videos, which, sadly, make it look like you’re broadcasting from the Branch Davidian compound just minutes after it was redecorated by a pair of legally blind howler monkeys. (Okay, that one definitely was uncalled for.)

The train could have been a small but important piece of a revitalized local economy. Now it’s gone, and no one really knows if it will return. And that might ultimately prove to be an embarrassment for all of Wisconsin’s residents, not just our governor.

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