Mary Burke Supports High-Speed Rail

Despite the evidence from other states, Mary Burke believes in high-speed rail for Wisconsin

April 8, 2014

by Bill Jaeck
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Mary Burke, presumptive Democrat nominee for Governor, said she would have accepted taxpayer money from the federal government to establish a high-speed rail line in Wisconsin if she had been Governor back in 2010, in response to a question posed by an audience member at a taping of “On the Issues” with Mike Gousha held at Marquette University on March 25th.

In a wide-ranging interview with Gousha, Burke complained that Governor Scott Walker needs to realize that “he’s not running against Jim Doyle but against me.” She also made it clear she would have accepted the federal government subsidy in 2010 for a high-speed passenger train service from Milwaukee to Madison and would have further expanded the line and service to Minneapolis.

Back in 2010, candidate Scott Walker campaigned against the high-speed Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line, which Governor Jim Doyle had started the preliminary planning on, calling it a waste of taxpayer money. Even with $810 million in federal aid, Walker feared that state taxpayers would eventually have to subsidize parts or all of the costs of the rail line, including the $8 million in annual costs for just track maintenance alone.

At the time, the MacIver Institute highlighted several problems with the proposed high-speed rail line in Wisconsin, including a fact-check on the rhetoric used by supporters. Advocates for the project claimed it would create thousands of new jobs when only 55 permanent jobs would be created. They said it would be economical, but a family of four would spend less than $40 to drive round trip from Milwaukee to Madison and the train would cost as much as $264. And the claim that the train would be high-speed was laughable because the average speed would be less than 60 miles per hour.

In Ohio, Governor John Kasich declared dead a project that would have created passenger train service between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Ongoing maintenance costs far outweighed the $500 million federal grant start-up grant Ohio had been awarded. Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected a high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando and turned down more than $2 billion in federal money. He feared cost overruns that could leave Florida taxpayers stuck with a $3 billion tab.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature accepted the federal grant monies and state voters approved a $10 billion bonding referendum that will help fund the project. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said at the time, “No other state is as ready, as able, or as determined to develop a high-speed rail system in the near future.” But plans for a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco have recently hit a snag, thanks to a Sacramento judge who recently issued a ruling that threatens the financing of the project. Judge Michael Kenny determined the project, in its current form, does not meet the promises made to voters when they approved the original $10 billion bond offering in 2008. The judge ordered the state to write a new plan to pay for the upwardly revised $68 billion project.

Critics of the planned line have warned of certain cost overruns and claimed that projected estimations of ridership (and thus revenue generated by the project) are too rosy, while voter support for the project has been declining. In March of 2013, a survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that “only 43 percent of likely voters support the project.

The New York Times published a piece earlier this year about the California plan. Joe Nation, a professor of public policy at Stanford University and a critic of the plan, said Gov. Brown would have to grapple with this decline in support, which he argued reflected voters’ growing doubts about the basic competence of government. “Obamacare has leached over into this,” Nation said. “You have people saying, The federal government that can’t build a website — how can we expect them to build a multibillion-dollar train?”

Closer to home in Wisconsin, Amtrak’s Hiawatha service that last year carried nearly 820,000 passengers between Milwaukee and Chicago at $48 a round trip ticket, but still required generous federal subsidies to stay in business. Amtrak’s total federal subsidies surpassed $1.4 billion in FY 2013. Subsidies to Amtrak remove a big incentive for it to operate efficiently and to rein in unnecessary costs. As an example, they claim to have lost $72 million in food and beverage service operating last year.

So, if even liberal California is experiencing high-speed rail buyer’s remorse, why would Mary Burke believe it is a wise use of taxpayer money here in Wisconsin? Hopefully, as the race for Governor progresses, candidate Burke will share with Wisconsinites her thought process and rationale for supporting such a colossal boondoggle.

Right now, despite Mary Burke’s protestations, it looks like she is running on Jim Doyle’s legacy and that should scare Wisconsin taxpayers.

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