Outgoing lame duck Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has touted the fact that Wisconsin “won” an $823 million federal stimulus grant to pay for building the line, as though Wisconsin had won its own lottery. He is pushing hard to cross the “point of no return” on the project, but Walker and Neumann have countered that the money should be rejected and that the project will require additional federal spending — which of course, comes from U.S. taxpayers. Walker has even run a television spot railing against “runaway government spending,” saying the state will have to spend $10 million a year on operating costs for the rail line. He vowed to “stop this train.” Democrats claim that much of the operating money will come from Washington — which, of course, is precisely the point being made by Ron Johnson. It is money Washington doesn’t have.
How and when high-speed rail became a lightning rod for political debate is unclear. However, the April 16, 2009, unveiling by President Obama of his plans for the nation’s high-speed rail (HSR) network certainly served as a catalyst. Obama boldly compared the HSR network to the creation of the Interstate Highway system in 1956, promising “at least” $1 billion per year in subsequent budget allocations in addition to $8 billion in stimulus money. His proposal seemingly fulfills his promise to redistribute wealth, as less than 1% of Americans will ride HSR but 99% will pay for it.
While Democrats in favor of high-speed rail admit that HSR will need to be heavily subsidized by the federal government, they point out that the FAA and the airline industry receives subsidies and our highway system is subsidized with every gallon of gasoline we buy. “We’re gonna be taking cars off of congested highways and reducing carbon emissions,” says Vice President Joe Biden, a fanatical rail supporter.
Fiscal conservatives like Ron Johnson respond by pointing out that most traffic jams are urban, not inter-city, so high-speed rail between cities like Milwaukee and Madison will have no effect on the daily commute of most Americans. More importantly, they claim that the stated cost of anything government does is almost always increased by a factor of ten. CNN has estimated that HSR could cost well over $500 billion and take a generation or more to build, all while failing to serve much of the country at all. In fact, globally, only two high-speed rail lines have recouped their capital costs and all depend on huge subsidies to stay in operation.
President Obama and embattled Senator Russ Feingold look to Amtrak as evidence in support of HSR, but since its founding in 1971, Amtrak has gobbled up almost $30 billion in subsidies and a typical Amtrak trip is propped up by a $35 subsidy. Nearly 150 million Americans commute to work every day, while Amtrak carries just 78,000 passengers. Many voters realize that high-speed rail will not improve those numbers, but its costs will grow exponentially.
With the U.S. economy in shambles and our national debt strangling the country, it doesn’t bode well for Feingold that he supported the wildly unpopular health-care bill, which Johnson wants repealed, as well as last year’s big clunker, the stimulus bill. Feingold’s support for the unfunded and bottomless money pit of HSR doesn’t appear to be working for him either. If an entrenched insider like Feingold loses, it could have serious ramifications for the future of high-speed rail across the country.