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Robin Vos Eupdate: High Speed Rail Coming to Wisconsin - 2.19.2010

DOT Planned to Waste Transportation Dollars on Fish Fry and Child Care

Also In This Issue: High Speed Rail Coming to Wisconsin

In another shocking instance of stupidity in government, the Department of Transportation came under fire this week when they held a hearing in Madison that offered a free fish fry and child care paid for with transportation fund money.  The hearing was one of a series taking place in the Madison area to solicit public input for a highway expansion.

DOT directors admitted they made a mistake after their plan was discovered and covered by a Madison news outlet.  WISC TV reported that this is the second time free food and childcare have been offered.  Because of the bad publicity, officials at the DOT said that the Transportation Fund (read: gas tax revenue) would not be used for the second meal and childcare, and that an anonymous donor would pay for the expense. They did not disclose what the cost of the meal and childcare was, but said that the four hearings, in total, would cost $2500.

DOT officials said they were encouraged to offer the food and child care by hired consultants who were brought on to help with outreach to the community.  This outreach, known as environmental justice, is a federal directive, described by the Environmental Protection Agency as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies". 

Environmental justice, as it's described, is certainly a worthy goal, but what does it say that you feel you need to offer a free meal to people in order to get them to give their input on a project? People should be interested enough in the happenings in their community to show up and give their input without needing a free dinner.

Further, and  most importantly, this is the transportation fund we are talking about.  A fund that at the end of this biennium is projected to be $30 million in the red.  A fund that during the past two terms of Governor Doyle, has had well over a billion dollars siphoned away from it for other purposes.  Meanwhile, we have potholes, unfinished road projects and now the possibility of trains - high speed and commuter - that will demand precious transportation dollars.  Transportation dollars that you supply by paying a very high gas tax every time you fill up your tank.

Just like the transportation fund raids, this action is disgraceful and it's disrespectful to Wisconsin's taxpayers.  We all deserve an apology from the Department of Transportation. We pay a lot for a gallon of gas and in exchange we expect to have safe, smooth roads to travel on.  Much to the chagrin of Wisconsin drivers, the state has fallen miserably short in upholding that expectation in recent years. 

But that really shouldn't surprise anyone given the precedent that's been set by Jim Doyle - which is that it's ok to steal from the fund and now it's apparently ok to buy Madison residents free dinner and child care.  

More Transportation Fund Woes: High Speed Rail Coming to Wisconsin

Without further action by the next Governor or the next Legislature high speed rail will become a reality after Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee approved $810 million in federal funding on Tuesday.  The vote was a 12-4 party line vote.  My three Republican colleagues and I voted no because of the state subsidies that will be required to operate this line. 

I offered three amendments to try and make this project a little more fiscally feasible for Wisconsin taxpayers.  One amendment stipulated that no state subsidy could go to operate this train.  There's not much I can do if Congress decides it wants to borrow billions from China so Wisconsin can build a train, but I can at least try and prevent the state from committing millions of dollars for operational costs.  Unfortunately, this amendment failed on a party line vote. 

I then offered an amendment to cap the state subsidy at $7.5 million per year (indexed yearly for inflation).  This is the current estimation of what it might cost to keep this train running. I also specified in the amendment that the subsidy could not come from the transportation fund.  As I mentioned in my story above, the transportation fund is already in enough trouble.  Adding more funding commitments will only make the fund less solvent.  This amendment also failed on party lines.

Finally, I offered an amendment asking for an independent cost-benefit analysis of the high speed rail line.  The only information we have right now is based on an Amtrak analysis estimating 361,400 passengers will ride the train every year.  I think it's important to have an independent agency with no vested interest in the train conduct an analysis.  That way we might better determine if the state needs to plan on committing much more than the currently estimated $7.5 million per year.  And it might also mean fare estimates could change significantly (right now Amtrak estimates they will charge $66 for a round trip ticket between Madison and Milwaukee).  This amendment, not surprisingly, also failed on party lines.

So for right now, Wisconsin is on track to have a high speed rail line by 2013.  In 2013 it will only travel at 79 mph.  It wont be able to travel at 110 mph until 2016.  The trip will take about 75 minutes and will cost, as I mentioned earlier, about $66 per round trip.

Given that it already takes a car about 75 minutes to travel from Madison to Milwaukee, and only costs about $25 round trip, I'm not sure who these 361,400 passengers are going to be.  If you are a commuter, taking the train will cost you $330 per week.  That's more expensive than driving and much more expensive than taking the Badger Bus - something many people who commute between Madison and Milwaukee already do. 

We also can't forget that this is the same train that just cost us $48 million in borrowed money to buy the train cars via a no-bid contract executed by Governor Doyle.  For that, we're already paying $3.8 million a year in debt service and we haven't even purchased the locomotives yet. 

Finally, the supporters of this and every other spending initiative continue to use the mantra that it "creates more jobs" - automatically characterizing those of us that oppose the incredible spending as "anti-job".  So don't be surprised if the supporters of high speed rail paint my colleagues and I as an impediment to creating the 55 permanent jobs that this high speed rail line is predicted to create.  Please don't misunderstand me, 55 jobs is a great thing.  But I'm a little tired of those who whole-heartedly support stimulus spending claiming that a new job is  worth any amount of money. It's foolish logic.

Knowing that the line is $810 million, the cars are $48 million, and the initial annual investment is $7.5 million, each new job created by this rail line is going to cost at least $15.7 million.  Is that really a smart investment? I don't know who could possibly say yes. 

Instead of trying to fool us into believing that they really care about jobs, I wish Governor Doyle and supporters of this boondoggle would just tell us the truth: They love the idea of a big shiny new train and they don't care what it costs to get it.

State Representative Robin Vos State Capitol - Room 321 East - Post Office Box 8953 - Madison, Wisconsin 53708 Phone: (608) 266-9171 - Toll Free: (888) 534-0063 - Fax (608) 282-3663 Email: Rep.Vos@legis.wisconsin.gov On the Internet: Representative Vos' Web Site