MADISON – Since the 1960s, Wisconsin has largely stood by while other states aggressively competed for their fair share of federal grants and aid. That bottom-quartile performance among the 50 states is why Wisconsin has long been known as a “tax donor” state, meaning its taxpayers contribute far more to the feds than they get in return.
Now an award of $810 million in federal stimulus money will extend high-speed rail from the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor to Madison and, in time, to the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. For once, Wisconsin got to the train station on time.
By working with other Midwest states, Wisconsin made a compelling case to get a share of the $8 billion in federal high-speed rail grants. About $55 billion in requests were submitted, many from larger states, yet the Wisconsin line was selected to receive more than 10 percent of the total pie. Only Florida and California (states with many times Wisconsin’s population) and another Midwest project stretching from Chicago to St. Louis received larger federal grants.
That’s a result of Midwest states hanging together instead of hanging separately. At the Midwest High Speed Rail Summit in Chicago last summer, eight states signed a memorandum of understanding that delivered a clear message of political unanimity. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle was among five governors who pushed for the summit, which led to Washington receiving one regional set of priorities instead of potentially competing plans.
Opponents of high-speed rail will continue to question the federal investment and what it might cost states in matching dollars, but there are reasons to celebrate the Jan. 28 announcement versus lying down on the tracks:
n Better connections for Wisconsin: Milwaukee will get two more lines to Chicago and Madison will be connected to Chicago via Milwaukee by 2013, if all goes as planned. Those are vital connections for commerce within the region and they help to establish better connections to the East and West Coasts – and beyond.
n Better connections for the region: The proposed line to the Twin Cities would tie together the major hubs of the “I-Q Corridor,” which extends from Chicago through Wisconsin and into Minnesota. A distance of only 400 miles separates two dynamos of the Midwest economy – Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul. That’s a shorter distance than what separates San Diego from the “Silicon Valley” in California. Within the region are some of the nation’s leading research universities, federal labs, financial centers, tech companies and talent pools. High-speed rail will help bring them closer together.
n More travel choices make sense: Rail will give people another option while easing congestion on highways and in airports. As the economy improves, air travel will see more delays, the Brookings Institution noted in a recent report. Lengthy airline delays (two hours or more) are twice as common now as in 1990 and may get worse as the economy recovers. By the way, half of all flights in the United States and 30 percent of the passenger traffic take place on trips of 500 miles or less – well within the range of the Wisconsin lines.
n High-speed rail use is growing: Passenger rail ridership has been trending up nationally. Amtrak carried nearly 27.2 million passengers in fiscal 2009, marking the second highest ridership total since the National Railroad Passenger Corp. began operations in 1971. The 27.2 million passengers for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2009, fell short of the all-time record of 28.7 million for fiscal 2008, but exceeded fiscal 2007 by 5.1 percent.
n It will create jobs: State officials have estimated the project would lead to 13,000 jobs in construction and manufacturing in Wisconsin. Some of those are train manufacturing jobs through an agreement between Wisconsin and Patentes Talgo, the Spanish train maker. That 13,000 estimate may not be far off, according to the American Association of Railroads. It calculates that each $1 billion in rail investment creates 20,000 jobs.
The costs of high-speed rail are high – but so are highways and air travel, which are also heavily subsidized. Wisconsin can gain a competitive advantage through high-speed rail while strengthening its role as an economic player in the Upper Midwest. With help from its neighbors, Wisconsin finally won a major federal lobbying campaign. Let’s keep it on track.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.