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Did Chicago-style Politics Kill Wisconsin's High Speed Rail?

By Kevin Robinson in News on Nov 16, 2010 2:00PM

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is reporting that Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker accepted nearly $130,000 in campaign contributions from highway construction firms and their employees between January, 2009 and August, 2010. That number doesn't include tens of thousands of dollars of contributions made to the Republican Governors Association, or funding directed to outside third-party groups, which aren't required to disclose their donors. Scott has said that he won't take the $810 million in Recovery Act funding for high-speed rail, asking instead that the funds be redirected to expanding the state's highway system. Wisconsin has already taken over $700 million in federal funding for highway repair work in the last two years.

"Walker has gained (road builders') support. He didn't have it before - he didn't have it in 2006 when he ran for governor and he didn't have it as a legislator, but he's got it now," Mike McCabe, executive director of the campaign-finance reform group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign told the Journal-Sentinel. "Whether it was intentional or whether it was a coincidence, I don't think matters very much. The bottom line is, his message has been tailored to gain their support, and he has gained their support."

Walker's opposition to the rail project could have direct consequences on employment in Wisconsin, however. Spanish train-builder Patentes Talgo, which is building two cars for the existing Amtrak Hiawatha line, is being courted by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who has embraced the federal funding to upgrade rail service in the Midwest. Talgo has said that if Wisconsin doesn't change its mind about funding for rail, the company will leave no later than 2012, after delivering two trains that it has committed to build for the state of Oregon. The Quinn administration has said that rail expansion in Illinois enjoys “overwhelming public support," and that Illinois has a well-qualified labor pool, as well as “several locations throughout the state that would probably be attractive” to Talgo. “We’re in the preliminary process of just introducing our state to (Talgo),” Mike Murray, a policy adviser for the Quinn administration told the Galesburg Register-Mail.

Scott, for his part, has vacillated on the issue, saying on one hand that the project is dead, which is what he campaigned on, while telling Talgo that "that the decision is not final. He's just trying to understand the implications of the big project. He needs time," according to Talgo spokeswoman Nora Friend.