Train of Thought

Today’s headline is a sad double entendre. Madison’s hopes for passenger rail service will, it appears, have to remain just a thought.

Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu have said they will oppose any state cost share if the feds decide to build a rail line connecting Madison to Milwaukee. Since a cost share would almost certainly be required, that probably kills our chances. Maybe Gov. Tony Evers could find a way to save some money from all that federal pandemic largesse to meet the requirement, but that would seem to be a long shot.

If there’s one thing you can count on from Republicans it’s that they hate anything on rails. They fought Milwaukee’s streetcar tooth and nail, but at least some of it got built. They hated my streetcar proposal for Madison, and killed even the Regional Transit Authority local funding mechanism that would have paid for it. No state funding would have been involved. And famously, Scott Walker killed the last incarnation of the Milwaukee to Madison project before even taking office in 2011, giving $810 million of our tax money back to the feds to be spent in other states.

The irony of Walker’s move is that it actually ended up costing the state more than if he had allowed the project to move forward. Walker’s excuse for giving back all that money was that operating the train would have cost the state $7 million a year. But in breaking contracts with Talgo, the train manufacturer that was already building trains and employing workers in Milwaukee, we ended up losing far more than that — and all for nothing.

A rendering of what would have been the Madison train station near Monona Terrace. Had Scott Walker not killed the project, the train would have celebrated its tenth anniversary of operation next year.

Walker didn’t care because the point was never about the money. The point was sticking it to Madison and Milwaukee. It’s very popular for Republicans to just flat out run against our two largest cities. Even Tommy Thompson, a relatively good governor, declared he would “stick it to Milwaukee” when the Brewers were trying to build a new stadium.

What’s this about? For one thing, resentment against big cities, university towns and the seats of government is nothing new. Even in rural counties you can hear griping about the county seat. Oh, those Rheinlander snobs! But this urban-rural split has become worse in recent decades as urban areas have generally done much better in a techie, connected world economy. And relative affluence can breed contempt in both directions. The other group becomes a basket of deplorables.

The difference is that the policy responses don’t follow the resentments. Urban liberals generally support policies like expanding high speed internet, improving rural schools and helping farm economies. They don’t fight town and county road improvements even though they are no more likely to use those roads than a rural resident is likely to ride the train.

Ironically, rural legislators — representing their constituents — are eager to vote against the cities because they play off the perception that they’re just bringing down the powerful. That’s ironic because rural areas enjoy power in our system that far outpaces the numbers of their voters. Thanks to gerrymandering and just the way we sort ourselves out on the landscape, Republicans have near veto proof majorities in the Wisconsin Legislature, despite the purple nature of our state.

The bottom line is that there’s nothing to be gained by the state as a whole in turning down federal money to extend passenger rail service to Madison. Whatever state match might be required is very likely to be dwarfed by all the federal money (read jobs) coming in to build the line and by the economic benefits of greater connectivity between the two cities. This is cutting off our nose to spite our face, but it’s also undeniably good politics for the GOP.

I wish I had an answer that had a chance of making the train happen. But the only thing to do is to find a way to bring more prosperity to rural areas so that the resentment isn’t so thick. That should be a priority for liberals and Democrats, but it’s very much a long-term project and not one that’s likely to bear fruit any time soon.

It looks to me like the only trains to Madison will be trains of thought.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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