7.27.2009

Putting the cart before the horse. Or, putting the train before the tracks.

A couple weeks ago, Governor Doyle announced the big deal he made with Spanish train company Talgo. The state shelled out $47 million dollars for two trains and (hopefully) 80 jobs for the state, all as part of some master plan for "high-speed" rail between Madison and Milwaukee and Chicago.

People are apparently very excited about the whole prospect. Senator Robson issued a press release claiming that "once we have an established assembly plant here, we could be the train builder for the nation." While I would certainly welcome such a distinction, and the jobs that come with it, this all seems a little over the top. The Governor's own press release states that the "assembly and maintenance facilities are expected to create about 80 jobs for Wisconsin workers, with the potential for more jobs as operations grow." I'm glad we get 80 jobs, but for a town like Janesville - where Sen. Robson thinks the assembly "plant has plenty of space" (no kidding, it used to house a couple thousand jobs) - such an increase does little to help it's struggling economy.

The big problem with the Governor's plans are the uncertainty of how many people will actually use the rail line. According to this story from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the train won't even travel faster than 70 mph until 2015. What incentive is there to take the train when it's possible to drive faster on the highway? Also, what sense does it make to have the train stop at the Dane County Airport when most people coming to Madison are probably headed downtown?

Even the economic impact is far from certain. Most estimates assume that a larger, region-wide transportation system, even though the Governor admits that Wisconsin might be the only state looking at this right now. It's hard to sell a major investment on mere hope that other states will act. There is little evidence that a passenger line will be profitable either. Look at Amtrak and the billions of dollars lost each year there.

One of the big selling points of trains has been that they will ease congestion on highways and decrease pollution, but the GAO released a study that seems to contradict those claims. The report highlights state that "research on rider and cost forecasts has shown they are often optimistic, and the extent that U.S. sponsors quantify and value public benefits varies." Furthermore, in testimony to Congress, the GAO's Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Susan Fleming summarized the report by stating "high speed rail does not offer a quick or simple solution to relieving congestion on our nation’s highways and airways. High speed rail projects are costly, risky, take years to develop and build, and require substantial up-front public investment as well as potentially long-term operating subsidies."

Even with these findings, the Governor seems determined to jump head-first into the railroad business. This isn't a good thing and highlights a disturbing pattern in government: Rushing through legislation and spending so it looks like government is being productive. We saw this with the bailouts last year, the stimulus, cap and trade and health care this year. Even our state budget was rushed through with closed door meetings.

What we really need is to slow down. We need to analyze all the information and all the reports and make sure that if we're going to do something like high-speed rail all the other states are onboard too. This isn't a go it alone type of thing, but that's what we're doing.

I think state DOT secretary Frank Busalacchi summed up the case against rushing into this: “Is it worth it? I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball.”