Discussion about the possibilities of high-speed rail has been plentiful over the years. The federal government is putting dollars behind the talk, with Wisconsin the big winner in a network that could extend throughout the Midwest. But there is controversy in the Badger State.
A brick-and-glass state office building on the banks of Lake Monona, just a few blocks from the Wisconsin Capitol and the rest of downtown Madison, shows no outward sign that it has become the focal point of one of the most heated — and unexpected — debates to divide this state’s Democrats and Republicans in a crucial election year.
The controversy is over what the building could become: one of the first new station stops on a high-speed rail network paid for primarily with federal dollars. Wisconsin won big in a national competition to get the high-speed rail stimulus money, and the issue historically has attracted bipartisan support here. Proponents say the new rail service will spur development and link Midwestern cities more tightly together.
But many Wisconsin Republicans this year are denouncing the new trains, using the project as a symbol to show how Democratic leaders in both state and federal government are spending money that neither can afford. “More than anything,” says Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, “it symbolizes what people think of here when they think of runaway government spending.”
Both Walker and Mark Neumann, a former congressman who faces Walker in Tuesday’s (Sept. 14) Republican primary, want the state to stop work on the project. Walker launched his own website called NoTrain.com, calling for using the money to fill other transportation needs. Neumann doesn’t want it used for transportation at all; he wants the money for tax breaks, although it’s not clear how viable either option is.
Rail proponents are not backing down. President Obama visited Milwaukee to preview his plans to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure, specifically mentioning high-speed rail. His transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a recent visit that “nobody can stop this train.” And Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is running to keep the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands, is firmly behind extending high-speed rail to Madison.