Estranged Bedfellows: Trains and Conservatism

It’s not really clear how this fits with an agenda of fiscal conservatism, but for some reason passenger rail has become a scapegoat for the political right.

From New Jersey to Ohio and Wisconsin, Republican executives are calling off passenger rail projects with great fanfare. Perhaps the most flamboyant opponent is Wisconsin Governor-Elect Scott Walker, who made his anti-rail agenda the central tenet of his campaign. (Because nothing threatens the health of Wisconsin quite like the availability of efficient and affordable inter-city transportation!)

Of course, all the actors involved claim to be operating out of concern for the public purse, saying their states can’t afford rail systems that are largely being financed by the feds. The problem with this argument is that it only stands up if we assume roads are built and maintained by an army of faeries who work for free and develop asphalt with a magic potion, all at no cost to taxpayers.

James Rowen of Network blog The Political Environment explains the contradictions in Wisconsin:

The Wisconsin rail segment that Scott Walker wants to kill could eventually fit into a regional high-speed rail network. Click to enlarge. Image: Midwest High Speed Rail Association

There is $3.7 billion of freeway reconstruction and expansion on the books just in Southeastern Wisconsin alone. Another $1 billion has been proposed to add a lane from the Dells to the Illinois State line.

A new national rail network makes an infrastructure investment that fills a need, puts people to work and was to be made available in Wisconsin at no construction cost, and an annual operating charge statewide of $750,000 — about $60,000 a month.* A bargain, as I said a few days ago. [Editor's note: The annual operating cost will drop to $750,000 if federal subsidies pick up 90 percent of it, as it does now for the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line. Otherwise, Wisconsin will be responsible for the full $7.5 million, the number Scott Walker has been using.]

The state of Wisconsin some time ago disclosed it had already spent $8.8 million on the Pabst Farms Interchange to the Not-Yet-And-Maybe-Never-Built Shopping Mall. That’s enough money to fund the train’s operations for almost 12 years — and the Interchange hasn’t been built yet.

Lost in the rhetoric and misstatements about the Madison-Milwaukee train is that it is a segment of a network of high-speed, modern trains to connect Chicago and the Twin Cities and eventually become a portion of a truly national rail system. Cutting the Madison-Milwaukee segment will cut an emerging business connection and make the state a backwater.

Not all Republicans are cut from the same cloth as Walker. John Robert Smith, the Republican former mayor of Meridian Mississippi and president of Reconnecting America, has called rail investment an issue that can “transcend partisanship.”

But rail opponents seem to have confused avoiding any and all new costs with fiscal conservatism, which, at its heart, is more about efficiency and spending wisely. It’s hard to argue that single occupancy vehicles are a more efficient and cost-effective way to move people than passenger rail. I would like to hear Scott Walker try.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Urbanophile examines the under-appreciated benefits religious institutions offer cities. M-Bike.org says until cyclists are given proper accommodation in road laws, they should ignore passages that make little sense from the perspective of a saddle and threaten their safety. And Eco Velo is reporting the results from its survey of more than 200 cyclists on why they ride.