News of a “dog bites man” variety, but it bears an “I told you so.” After Wisconsin turned down the federal money for a so-called “high speed rail” line between Milwaukee and Madison, California gladly took the money. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett complained about Governor Scott Walker’s decision by thinking of the federal government as Santa Claus.
“My congratulations to the workers in California and Florida. As a result of this decision, you will have a merry Christmas,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Barrett saying at the time. “I’m just sad the same won’t happen here in Wisconsin.”
(Florida would later kill its “high speed” rail project, too.)
However, it appears Californians would have preferred coal in their stockings instead of the promise of a new train. After eight years, a referendum to borrow $10 billion to pay for the cost overruns, and more federal and state tax dollars, California’s dream of building a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco appears to be dead. The cost of the project ballooned from an estimated $32 billion to nearly $100 billion by the time Governor Gavin Newsom pulled the plug.
Instead, California will focus on completing the 160 mile stretch from Merced to Bakersfield that’s already been started rather than returning $3.5 billion in federal funding, apparently to spite President Donald Trump? “I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump,” Newsom said in his state of the state address.
By comparison, the federal government was partially shut down over a dispute of just $5 billion for border security. Instead of sinking more money into a failed project, perhaps Newsom would consider California giving the money back so the federal government could avoid another partial shutdown?
According to Newsom, someday the rest of the route could be built.
“For those who want to walk away from this whole endeavor, I offer you this,” he said. “Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it.”
So someday California will have to waste more billions on an unneeded train to justify the $1.4 billion spent already. It just won’t be Newsom wasting that money, but some future governor.
If high-speed rail can’t make it in population dense California, what made anyone think it could work in Wisconsin?
When then-Gov. Jim Doyle approved the less-than high speed rail plan between Milwaukee and Madison, the federal government was going to spend $810 million for a train that would have run (57 mph on average) slower than traffic between the two cities and would have terminated at Madison’s airport. When critics mocked the idea of anyone wanting to take the train only to end up outside of the city, the end location was quickly changed to a location in downtown Madison, demonstrating that the plan for the train was not well thought out.
If you accept the premise that federal money is somehow free money and will not have to be paid back someday by the taxpayers, the Wisconsin portion of the train’s cost was the operating cost (estimated at $7.5 million annually before cost overruns), building the train stations, and other improvements. The city of Oconomowoc was supposed to be a stop along the rail line but balked when it found out that the station could cost as much as $30 million.
Ironically, at the time Walker canceled the project, Barrett tried to justify the federal spending on the rail line by claiming Wisconsin’s portion of the bill for President Barack Obama’s train dream was $140 million. Apparently federal money isn’t free when other states are spending it instead. It probably never occurred to Barrett that the best thing would be for Congress to cancel Obama’s train project everywhere.
Wisconsin dodged the bullet train that wasn’t even a bullet. It was more like a Nerf gun dart – a very, very expensive Nerf gun dart. We’ll never know how much Wisconsin taxpayers would have been really impacted by the so-called high speed train that wasn’t, because we’ll never know just how much the cost overruns for constructing and operating the train would have been. What we can do, however, is look at what it already cost California and be grateful that Walker prevented the train from being built here.