Wisconsin Gov. Rejects $810 Million, Thousands of Jobs, for High-Speed Rail Project

Roger Bybee November 16, 2010

Scott Walker, Wisconsin's Republican governor-elect.

Scott Walk­er, the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor-elect of Wis­con­sin, came into office pledg­ing that he would add 250,000 jobs to the state dur­ing his first term.

But just days after his Novem­ber 2 tri­umph, Walk­er already is dig­ging an even deep­er hole on his jobs pledge. He’s touched off a polit­i­cal furor by try­ing to block thou­sands of jobs from being cre­at­ed for a high-speed rail project.

The gov­er­nor-elect has announced that he would turn away $810 mil­lion in fed­er­al stim­u­lus mon­ey aimed at cre­at­ing a high-speed train sys­tem for the 80-mile cor­ri­dor between Mil­wau­kee and Madison.

Walk­er, a fierce, long-time foe of mass tran­sit, keeps repeat­ing that he wants to devote the mon­ey to Wisconsin’s high­way sys­tem, despite U.S. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Ray LaHood’s blunt use-it or lose-it ulti­ma­tum in a recent letter:

I respect the pow­er of gov­er­nors to make deci­sions for their states. There seems to be some con­fu­sion, how­ev­er, about how these high-speed rail dol­lars can be spent. For this rea­son, I would like to set the record straight: None of the mon­ey pro­vid­ed to Wis­con­sin may be used for road or high­way projects, or any­thing oth­er than high-speed rail…

End­ing the project could cost as many as 13,719 jobs that the state Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion says would be gen­er­at­ed through con­struc­tion, engi­neer­ing, design and train man­u­fac­tur­ing tied to the project. (Some esti­mates run low­er).

We’re giv­ing away $810 mil­lion that will go to some oth­er state, and we’ll be los­ing out on any­where from 4,700 to well over 10,000 jobs,” fumed State Sen. Spencer Cog­gs, who was pres­i­dent of an AFSCME local before being elect­ed to the Legislature.

Over the long haul, pro­po­nents of the train project argue, the spread of high-speed rail has the poten­tial to gen­er­ate new eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in Wis­con­sin and oth­er Mid­west states effi­cient­ly con­nect­ed by envi­ron­men­tal­ly ‑friend­ly mass-tran­sit. This would speed eco­nom­ic renew­al in a region that has long been in decline as cap­i­tal has shift­ed from pro­duc­tion to finance and jobs have been shipped to Mex­i­co, Chi­na, and oth­er low-wage nations.

Apart from the high-income areas of the two key finan­cial cen­ters of Min­neapo­lis and Chica­go, the indus­tri­al Mid­west amounts to a waste­land of emp­ty fac­to­ries, cor­rod­ing cities, and crum­bling neigh­bor­hoods,” wrote Richard C. Long­worth in his influ­en­tial book Caught in the Mid­dle, pub­lished just before the reces­sion inten­si­fied all of these neg­a­tive trends.

INTRAN­SI­GENCE FUELS COALI­TION, PROTEST

In bat­tling the high-speed rail plan, Walker’s intran­si­gence has brought togeth­er labor and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, as the high-speed rail project rep­re­sents both high-pay­ing jobs and a much clean­er envi­ron­ment by replac­ing much of the car traf­fic between the cities.

State Sen. Cog­gs was among the parade of speak­ers — from labor, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, the faith com­mu­ni­ty, Lati­no, and African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood groups — who addressed a spir­it­ed crowd of about 400 Mon­day. They denounced Walker’s move as destruc­tive both to the envi­ron­ment and the state’s eco­nom­ic recov­ery.

The ral­ly took place out­side the new Span­ish-owned Tal­go train-equip­ment oper­a­tion that employed 80 work­ers for the mass-tran­sit project before Walker’s elec­tion. I had to send 80 peo­ple home Thurs­day,” explained Lashon­da Buck, project admin­is­tra­tor for the rail project’s design phase. I lost my job, too.”

But pro­po­nents of mass tran­sit believe that they have Walk­er in a vul­ner­a­ble spot with the econ­o­my fore­most in the pub­lic mind.

This project has the poten­tial for even­tu­al­ly cre­at­ing bet­ter eco­nom­ic links across the Mid­west,” said Phil Neuen­feldt, the Wis­con­sin AFL-CIO’s recent­ly-elect­ed pres­i­dent. Even Cham­ber of Com­merce offi­cials in LaCrosse, locat­ed on the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er right across the Min­neso­ta, back the project because they see the poten­tial of being eco­nom­i­cal­ly linked up with both near­by Min­neapo­lis-St. Paul and the rest of Wisconsin.

Play­ing off Scott Walker’s cam­paign slo­gan, Neuen­feldt said of the poten­tial for high-speed mass tran­sit, Wis­con­sin would real­ly be open for business.”

OPEN FOR BUSINESS?

The Tal­go oper­a­tion is locat­ed in a cor­ner of the vast, oth­er­wise vacant for­mer AO Smith com­plex in Milwaukee’s inner city. AO Smith once employed 6,500 work­ers, includ­ing Cog­gs’ father for 27 years, before it began shift­ing jobs to Mex­i­co, with the entire facil­i­ty shut­ting down in 2004.

The site thus sym­bol­izes the city’s steep fall from broad­ly-shared pros­per­i­ty to per­va­sive, pro­longed poverty.

But with Tal­go mov­ing into part of the for­mer AO Smith site, the neigh­bor­hood got its first injec­tion of skilled man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in many years. Unem­ploy­ment in the area runs at an appalling 53%, says Sen. Cog­gs, who rep­re­sents the area, and a recent study found that Mil­wau­kee is the fourth poor­est city in the nation.

Tal­go is an anchor ten­ant, and will hope­ful­ly help us to re-cre­ate our man­u­fac­tur­ing base,” said Neuen­feldt. Mil­wau­kee has lost 80% of its man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs since 1977, accord­ing to urban econ­o­mist Marc Levine of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee.

With this project, some of the jobs will be union jobs, but they will all be high-pay­ing jobs, and that’s what’s real­ly need­ed,” the AFL-CIO pres­i­dent said. Labor, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, reli­gious groups, and youth all want the same thing: an econ­o­my that works for all the peo­ple.”

How­ev­er, Scott Walk­er has a very dif­fer­ent vision for Wis­con­sin, begin­ning with com­plete­ly end­ing cor­po­rate tax­es that will mean a loss of gov­ern­ment ser­vices, high­er tuition at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, and high­er tax­es for homeowners.

FACTS DON’T CHANGE HIS MIND’

In oppos­ing the pro­posed Mil­wau­kee-Madi­son high-speed train, Walk­er relied on the flim­sy pre­texts that that the project will gen­er­ate only 55 per­ma­nent jobs (e.g., engi­neers, brake­men, con­duc­tors, etc.) and that main­te­nance will be an ongo­ing drain of $7.5 mil­lion to $8 mil­lion on state tax­pay­ers.

That sum is an infin­i­tes­i­mal sliv­er of the state’s rough­ly $14 bil­lion annu­al bud­get. More­over, One state trans­porta­tion offi­cial said the tax­pay­ers’ share of oper­at­ing costs could be as lit­tle as $750,000 annu­al­ly.”

But Walk­er avoids con­fronting the much larg­er real job poten­tial and the tiny main­te­nance cost. His cam­paign web­site threw down this defi­ant challenge:

I am draw­ing a line in the sand, Mr. Pres­i­dent: No mat­ter how much mon­ey you and Gov­er­nor Doyle try to spend before the end of the year, I will put a stop to this boon­dog­gle the day I take office.

Walker’s bristling hos­til­i­ty to the notion of mass tran­sit is deeply ingrained in the Wis­con­sin Right, which sees high-speed rail as an insid­i­ous expan­sion of the pub­lic sec­tor. In the cal­cu­lus of Walk­er and his allies, spend­ing on high­ways and the health and cli­mate costs of pol­lu­tion do not count as sub­si­dies to auto transportation.

Thus, Walk­er drew more than nine times the con­tri­bu­tions from high­way con­trac­tors than his Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent Tom Barrett.

Fur­ther­more, some ele­ments of the Right oppose small­er mass-tran­sit projects that would allow more inner-city res­i­dents — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly African-Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos — to seek jobs in the sub­urbs, a prospect that they clear­ly did not relish.

Pop­u­lar African-Amer­i­can talk-show host Earl Ingram, Jr., a for­mer A.O. Smith work­er him­self, was among those at the ral­ly. He vowed to stress the issue of the rail project to his lis­ten­ers. I’m going to keep pound­ing away on this.

It’s all about Scott Walk­er and the promis­es he made to right-wing talk show hosts, who made him who he is,” said Ingram. It’s just very unfor­tu­nate that the facts don’t change his mind.”

Roger Bybee is a Mil­wau­kee-based free­lance writer and Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor in Labor Edu­ca­tion.Roger’s work has appeared in numer­ous nation­al pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Z mag­a­zine, Dol­lars & Sense, The Pro­gres­sive, Pro­gres­sive Pop­ulist, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Amer­i­can Prospect, Yes! and For­eign Pol­i­cy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH