We may not agree on which route should be chosen for the future Madison-to-St. Paul extension of high-speed rail, but groups advocating competing La Crosse and Eau Claire routes together support continued state investment in passenger rail, including completion of the planned Milwaukee-to-Madison line.
“We’re setting aside our individual route aspirations today to let people and political candidates know that we favor increased frequency of trains now and high-speed trains as soon as practicable.” That’s James Hill, who chairs the La Crosse-based Empire Builder Coalition, from a recent joint statement with our West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, the Eau Claire-Menomonie-Hudson advocacy group of which I’m co-chair.
Fourteen years after a far-sighted Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson, proposed that Wisconsin participate in the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative – a policy continued through subsequent McCallum (R) and Doyle (D) administrations (and supported by the current Republican governors of Minnesota and Indiana) – we’re puzzled that this long-time bipartisan issue has suddenly become controversial.
High-speed rail will be to the 21st Century economy what the Interstate Highway System was to the latter half of the 20th Century. Turning down the federal funds for the Milwaukee-Madison line because of the ongoing operating support needed would be like turning down funding for the Interstate System in the 50s because we’d have to maintain it.
Our state has benefited economically from those highways. In the future, we’ll see the same thing from high-speed rail.
The relatively modest ongoing support high-speed rail needs is justifiable within the total state transportation budget. An economic impact study conducted for the Midwest system shows an almost 2-to-1 economic return for every dollar spent. Those benefits include: greater productivity (you can’t work and drive at the same time!), improved safety, reduced highway congestion, greater energy efficiency, and new economic development opportunities.
The late conservative icon Paul Weyrich – a Racine native and a founder of the Heritage Foundation – called our dependence on highways and petroleum “one of our greatest national security vulnerabilities.” He advocated trains as part of the solution in.his 2008 book, “The Next Conservatism.”
Population projections show a 90-percent increase in the number of Wisconsin citizens over 65 between 2000 and 2030, and reduced interest in driving and auto ownership is already evident among the younger generation. Both will lead to increased demand for non-auto travel choices.
Here is western Wisconsin, we regularly experience the lost time, productivity and sometimes danger in making the long drive to Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago.
Most arguments against high-speed rail reveal a misunderstanding of the nature and benefits of its implementation, or display an ignorance of the non-user-fee taxpayer support long enjoyed by other modes like highways and airports. Certainly we need to be prudent with the use of public dollars for any transportation project, but high-speed rail passes that test as a critical part of our future transportation system.
Construction of a national high-speed rail network is underway. If Wisconsin abandons its leadership position now, it will find itself at the back of the line for future projects. That’s a price our children will pay, and one could find today’s politicians judged harshly by history. Now it the time for high-speed rail opponents to re-think their positions and work to ensure a vibrant balanced transportation system that will serve our state well in the 21st Century.
Scott Rogers, an Eau Claire businessman, is co-chair of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, a subcommittee of the 10-county Momentum West economic development organization He also is the chair of Public Affairs Committee for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.