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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Walker Blasted for Losing Rail Money

Developer Grunau calls it a 'generational mistake'

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Milwaukee business leaders ripped into Gov. Scott Walker after the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rejected his bid for $210 million in Amtrak passenger rail upgrades last week.

The DOT's rebuke of Walker comes six months after the governor had rejected $810 million of federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison, as well as various commuter and freight rail improvements. The Amtrak funds, for the Hiawatha commuter line between Milwaukee and Chicago, had been part of the original stimulus funds rejected by Walker. Walker had reapplied for the Hiawatha project, but was rebuffed last week.

"I think we've made a generational mistake in returning the money to Washington," Milwaukee developer Gary Grunau said at a Public Policy Forum meeting last week.

Wisconsin was shut out of the long-in-the-works rail lines connecting the Midwest. Last week DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced funds for projects in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. The funds were part of a redistribution of the $2 billion rejected by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who, like his fellow Republican Walker, opposes federally funded high-speed rail.

Yet even the equally conservative Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan welcomed the $200 million investment in his state, calling the Detroit to Chicago rail investment a "big opportunity" for jobs and economic development.

At last Thursday's Public Policy Forum meeting on Walker's budget and economic development, developer Grunau blasted Walker's rejection of the $810 million won by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

"There's no better place for Milwaukee to be than to be linked to Chicago and linked to Madison," Grunau said. "When [high-speed rail] does get built, the people in Iowa are going to fight like hell for it to come from Chicago to Dubuque to Minneapolis. We're going to be sitting out at the end of the pier with nobody to talk to. And it scares the hell out of me."

Grunau blamed talk radio's Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling for calling high-speed rail a "boondoggle," which Walker echoed during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. But Grunau argued that Walker's embrace of the talk-radio-informed base and the governor's repeated criticism of Illinois would hurt Wisconsin's economic opportunities for generations. He said a close link to Chicago and northern Illinois is vital for Wisconsin's future.

"I think we've got to stop thinking of Chicago and Illinois as the enemy and think of [them] as something to help our economy," Grunau said.

Don Sykes, head of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, said transportation investment provides an opportunity for regional economic and workforce development. Unfortunately, Wisconsin will lose out on this opportunity and will watch from the sidelines.

"It will be fascinating to watch what Chicago will do as they build that rail to St. Louis and then from St. Louis to Kansas City," Sykes said.

'Ridiculous' and 'Crazy'

Walker's failure to secure funding for the Hiawatha line and high-speed rail wasn't the only source of criticism at last week's panel.

In his budget, Walker is proposing to move local transit systems out of the transportation fund, which will solely go to roadways—as desired by the road builders, a major group of Walker campaign contributors. Instead, transit will have to fight for funding from the ever-shrinking general purpose revenue fund. Walker's attack on collective bargaining also jeopardizes $46 million in federal funding for bus systems around the state because federal law requires those bargaining rights to continue in order to receive federal funds.

In addition, legislative Republicans have killed off regional transit authorities (RTAs) for commuter rail and have no plans to approve Milwaukee County's request to increase the sales tax by a half cent to provide a stable source of local funding for the struggling but necessary Milwaukee County Transit System.

"For a region to not be able to form an RTA is ridiculous," Grunau said. "For a region not to be able to put a half cent on the sales tax when there's been a public referendum supporting it to support transit is ridiculous."

Jill Morin, co-CEO of the design/architecture firm Kahler Slater, said it was "crazy" that companies with facilities in the suburbs, such as Northwestern Mutual, were forced to hire private vans to transport their workers to and from the city.

"So many corporations in town—this lousy economy notwithstanding—are looking for workers," Morin said. "Well, if workers can't get there, if it takes two-and-a-half hours by bus, how is that going to work? It doesn't."