Wisconsin will regret high-speed rail snub

A BizTimes reader recently asked about the difference in the way transportation policies and decisions are made in China vs. the United States. The issue came up as a reaction to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to reject the $810 million in federal funds that would have built high-speed rail to connect Madison and Milwaukee.

Before we start, a couple of things: In the United States, people tend to jumble intercity rail and commuter rail together. For the purpose of this article, I am only discussing intercity rail, not commuter rail. I am also assuming that transportation systems need to be balanced, so they are responsive to market needs, which means, there is probably a sweet spot where road, rail and air fit into an efficient interconnected network. I am also assuming that everyone realizes that all transportations systems are massively subsidized, and because of the enormous amounts of funds and impact involved, they are subject to extremely fierce fighting between those with conflicting economic and social agendas.

The difference

In a nutshell, the difference between China and the United States is between a centrally planned economy, where such decisions are made by professional planners and national bodies, as opposed to the ideological and political leanings of locally elected leaders.

China has almost five times as many people as the United States in a slightly smaller area.

In 2010, there were 1.68 billion passenger journeys conducted through China’s railways, up 9.9 percent year-on-year, according to data from the Ministry of Railways. In 2010, Amtrak projected 27.5 million passenger journeys, up from 27.2 million, or a little over 1 percent from 2009.

The total length of China’s railways in 2010 reached 91,000 km. By 2015, the number will be over 120,000 km, according to the Minister of Chinese Railways Liu Zhijun. The United States has 226,097 km of rail, 34,000 km of which is used for passenger rail. That number is not expected to change by 2015. It should be noted that the United States has the most advanced and efficient freight rail system in the world currently.

The combined length of China’s operating high-speed railways reached 8,358 km by the end of 2010 and by 2015 the total is expected to double to 16,000 km. China plans to invest 700 billion Yuan ($10.7 billion U.S.) for the construction of railways in 2012 alone. The United States has no “high-speed” rail. It has one line, the Acela Express, that can reach a speed of 150 mph, but only averages 68 mph on the trip between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Any gains in the next five years will be less than a couple of thousand km and the total budget currently allocated is $8 billion.

So what does this mean?

It depends on whether you believe transportation systems are crucial parts of our national infrastructure and need to be planned as such, or that such decisions can and should be made at the local level.

The answer will become apparent five to ten years down the road, when the effects of these issues are apparent – not in terms of which system is ideologically correct, but which system was able to make the best decision and then implement it.

The confusion in Wisconsin seems to stem from the successful casting of the Madison-Milwaukee high-speed rail line as an isolated intercity commuter line. If this were the case, it is doubtful that anyone would have supported it, other than the usual handful of economically interested and a few hard core rail enthusiasts.

The fact that it was one segment of the Chicago Hub Network, which would have linked Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis/St. Paul, made it a crucial opt out which will not only affect us but also Minneapolis/St Paul and the rest of the hub.

Turning down $810 million and the chance to be a player in the high-speed train manufacturing business is another matter; one which could be a tipping factor in four years, when voters consider their leadership options.

In terms of China, I know of no city or province which would have done something similar. Quite the opposite. They would have used every ounce of influence to solicit such an opportunity.

I must add that I have always had very cordial relations with Scott Walker, and he played an instrumental role in a number of projects in the Third Ward, including the Riverwalk and Milwaukee Public Market, which were far-sighted.

But on high-speed rail, we will have to agree to disagree, not only in terms of the decision, but how it was made.

Our failure to see the forest through the trees, as China positions itself for the ongoing economic competition, could cost us dearly. Partisan wrangling and ideological posturing, while we are in crisis, is not an answer and is weakening our ability to lead by example. China is taking advantage of the vacuum at our expense.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display