By: Brian Sikma
Uniting Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Governor Scott Walker, the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted this week to kill funding for further work on a state-funded passenger train and an associated maintenance facility. After former Democrat Governor Jim Doyle awarded a no-bid contract to foreign train manufacturer Talgo for a proposed high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison, public outcry and the election of Governor Walker ended the wasteful program. Trains already being built were to be used on Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha line and a new maintenance facility was still planned.
The legislative committee moved to end taxpayer involvement in the modified train project after concluding that the state simply did not have the cash to spend. Taxpayers were ultimately responsible for making sure the up-to $63 million cost of the maintenance facility was covered, not including other costs related to the project.
Mayor Barrett greeted the news of the funding cut with dismay. Speaking to reporters after the committee’s decision, Barrett remarked, “These are good family supporting jobs, and this action taken by the Joint Finance Committee today, really calls into question whether it is committed to creating jobs here in Wisconsin.”
It was projected that once all work was completed on the train project, 25 individuals would have been employed in running the maintenance facility. The train units would have been operated by existing Amtrak employees.
Mayor Barrett has worked tirelessly to build a streetcar in downtown Milwaukee so it is no surprise that he would eagerly champion a passenger rail project. Barrett’s streetcar project has drawn attention for likely overly optimistic yearly ridership projections, logistical problems, huge start-up and construction costs, and a permanent inability for the streetcar to pay for itself even over the long term. For most or all of these costs taxpayers would be liable for footing the bill.
Barrett has been the recipient of campaign contributions from disgraced former lawmaker Gary Goyke, who is now a lobbyist for groups advocating for the streetcar.
What is intriguing about Barrett’s outburst of ire over the termination of the rail project is that he was strangely silent on the matter of allowing environmentally sound mining back into Wisconsin when that issue was debated recently. The mine regulatory reform bill was an intense topic of debate, but Mayor Barrett did not speak out in favor of it even as Milwaukee area private-sector union leaders, business leaders across the state, and people in the impacted area were urging its passage. Simultaneously, Democrat state officeholders and progressive environmental groups opposed the measure’s passage.
If the mine overhaul had passed, it would have paved the way for a new mine in northern Wisconsin that would have created hundreds of direct jobs and hundreds of more jobs in support industries around the state. The city of Milwaukee was slated to benefit because much of the equipment to build and operate the mine was to come from Caterpillar Global Mining’s Milwaukee plant.
All told, the northern Wisconsin mine would have brought $1.5 billion in investment to the state, created thousands of jobs, and generated millions of dollars in tax revenue for state and local governments. In contrast, the railroad maintenance facility canned by the Joint Finance Committee would have cost taxpayers up to $63 million and created only 25 long-term jobs. That comes out to a per-job cost of $2.52 million.
That’s not a deal for taxpayers.
Mayor Tom Barrett could earn some points for candor and honesty if he was more consistent in his approach to job creation. Cherry-picking which jobs he wants – and favoring a handful of jobs that cost taxpayers millions of dollars over thousands of jobs that generate tax revenue – looks a bit like pandering to liberal special interests that will play heavily in the Democratic gubernatorial primary of the Walker recall election.