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Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010

Them Newfangled Trains

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Republicans claim it’s unfair to characterize them as simply “The Party of No,” but then an incredible windfall of jobs and development is announced for the state of Wisconsin to a rising chorus of Republicans shrieking “No!”

Republicans, of course, are skeptical of anything new and unproven.

In this case, the federal government is showering $823 million on Wisconsin to build the latest version of one of them newfangled high-speed train systems. Even though rail transportation has existed in this country since the early 1800s, Republicans think trains should be given more time to prove themselves before we jump whole hog into anything so revolutionary.

Bringing high-speed trains to the Midwest actually is a pretty radical idea. Usually, it’s only really important people who work in Washington, D.C., or New York City or maybe Philadelphia who get the benefit of the latest transportation technology.

But Wisconsin just happens to be an important link in a high-speed system that will connect the major cities in the Midwest: St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

And building such a system over the next five years fits perfectly with President Barack Obama’s announced plans to pump billions of dollars into creating jobs in states such as Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Madison and Milwaukee are the overwhelming beneficiaries of the nearly $1 billion lavished on modern rail transportation in the state.

Good daily rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago already exists, and it will get even better. But the majority of the funds will create the high-speed link for the heavily traveled Milwaukee to Madison corridor.

An auxiliary benefit is a potential development boom around the three stops along the way in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown. Frankly, Waukesha County deserves to be left out altogether. Local politicians have fought any rail connection between Milwaukee and Waukesha County for years.

They wouldn’t have minded riding into Milwaukee in comfort to work. But they couldn’t figure out any way to prevent people from Milwaukee—you know, people of color—from riding the train west into Waukesha County.

As many conservative Waukesha residents watch a high-speed, national transportation system pass them by, they can create their own souvenirs by flattening pennies on the tracks when the train barrels through really fast.

Baffling Opposition

Waukesha County is only the most extreme example of the small-town Republican mentality toward rail transportation that has blocked rail projects in southeastern Wisconsin for years.

Anyone from Milwaukee who visits other major cities around the country knows every one of them has some form of commuter rail serving everyone from executives in suits to the janitors who clean their offices.

When I lived in Chicago, I rode the “L” to work every day, as Chicagoans had been doing since 1892. A friend living in my building had his car stolen and didn’t know it for weeks, we drove so seldom.

People in other cities are baffled by the battles between liberals and conservatives over rail transportation in Wisconsin. Suburban and exurban Republicans are the primary beneficiaries of commuter systems in other cities. They think we’re crazy for fighting traffic instead of relaxing, reading or working on our laptop computers as we ride to and from our jobs.

Another thing that bothers Wisconsin Republicans about the $823 million windfall for high-speed rail right now is that it is a big win not only for President Obama in the Midwest, but also for Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

That’s what the president is talking about when he says the political hostility between the parties has become so toxic that anything one party can accomplish to benefit people is automatically opposed by the other side.

The real irony about Republicans whining about Wisconsin receiving nearly a billion dollars in federal funds to become part of a high-speed train system is that, perhaps most of all, the windfall is the result of hard work by a Wisconsin Republican hero.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson not only served on the Amtrak Board of Governors for two terms while high-speed rail was being developed, he was its chairman. Thompson was such an enthusiastic supporter of high-speed trains that one of the early Acela locomotives was named after him.

In whatever positions he rose to nationally, Thompson made a point of looking out for his home state. As secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, who was hostile to stem cell research, Thompson protected the stem cell lines pioneered at UW-Madison.

Planning directed by Thompson is a big reason Madison and Milwaukee are the next big beneficiaries of a national high-speed rail system.

That makes sniping by small-time Republicans look really small.


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