» Talgo will establish train manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. But state Republicans suggest they’ll oppose rail expansion if it gets in the way of highway spending.
Despite being a marginal player in the world high-speed rail market, Spanish train manufacturer Talgo is hoping to make a big push for orders in North America. Thanks to a deal it signed with Wisconsin last year, it’s well on its way: The company has agreed to locate a new U.S. plant in Milwaukee, with plans to deliver 125 mph trains to the state for service to Madison by 2013.
If state Republicans gain power, however, the state’s rail efforts could be short-lived.
Under the leadership of outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, the Badger State has been one of the country’s leaders in developing improved rail service. The Governor announced last March that he would move forward with a plan to expand services between Chicago and Milwaukee,and reopen the passenger link to Madison. Future services could be offered to Green Bay. Later in 2009, Mr. Doyle signed a deal with Talgo to buy two 14-car trains for train operations, in exchange for that company’s commitment to locate a new plant within the state.
Wisconsin’s investment was rewarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January, which announced $810 million for the Madison-Milwaukee line, enough to have 79 mph trains operating along the 85-mile line within three years. The corridor would be upgraded to 110 mph by 2015.
Talgo announced this week that it would build its plant in a former automotive facility in Milwaukee, eventually creating about 75 jobs there. The State of Oregon revealed today that it would buy two additional 125 mph 13-car trains for its Eugene-Vancouver services, bringing total Talgo orders to about $85 million from the Wisconsin plant, a significant first step for the ambitious Spanish concern. As of now, the plant will build only Series VIII trainsets, which are fully compliant with Federal Railroad Administration rules and operate using diesel propulsion. This train is not what would be considered a truly high-speed train in other countries.
Yet as an initial response to a desire for increasing rail services, the deal seems like a good one for Wisconsin. Not only will it get new trains, but it will also get manufacturing jobs, which it has been losing for decades.
With Democratic majorities in both the State Assembly and Senate, lawmakers approved the deal with the federal government last month along partisan lines. The GOP suggested that Wisconsin shouldn’t be saddled with the operating costs of the new corridor, which would start at around $7.5 million a year. This line of reasoning is similar to that expressed by Ohio Republicans, who similarly claim to be willing to reject federal funds for improved rail service if the state is asked to subsidize operations costs.
Republican gubernatorial candidate front-runner Scott Walker is taking a hard line against the Milwaukee-Madison project, claiming that he would shut down the corridor “if it takes money away from new-and-improved roads.” Another candidate, Mark Neumann, is also critical of the program, arguing that tax cuts would be a better use of public funds and that “if high speed rail were economically sound it would already have been built by the private sector.”
Democratic candidate Tom Barrett, the Mayor of Milwaukee, is a big supporter of the project as he claims it would serve as an economic stimulus for the troubled state. He also has made the quite legitimate claim that Wisconsin will have already spent $57 million on preliminary construction activity by the time the next governor is sworn in — it doesn’t make much since to pull out once so much money has already been invested.
Both Republicans are currently leading Mr. Barrett in polls in advance of the November election.
One could argue about the specific merits of the Milwaukee-Madison service, but the considerable success of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee — it has the third highest ridership per mile of U.S. intercity rail routes after the Northeast Regional and Capitol Corridor lines — suggests that Wisconsin’s population is well prepared for improved rail operations.
Just as in Ohio, Republican objections in Wisconsin are difficult to take seriously, because they’re incoherent. Why is it problematic for the government to sponsor rail construction when highways aren’t built by the private sector either? Why should roads always be prioritized in state spending, when trains are used by thousands of people each day too? More importantly, why is it that the first serious investment in passenger rail service Wisconsin has seen in decades is immediately greeted with skepticism, while road spending continues apace in the state, at more than $2 billion a year?
Nonetheless, Wisconsin’s rail investments are likely to move forward — the public has demonstrated clear support for the mode over the years, and there have been plenty of Republicans in the state, including former Governor Tommy Thompson, who have been serious proponents of new train services. But the increasingly hysterical GOP fear of investing in transportation projects that aren’t automobile-oriented may come to pose a mounting obstacle, in Wisconsin and beyond.
Image above: Talgo Series VIII Train, from Talgo