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Form Wealth Management

Throw train under the bus

November 03, 2010 | 07:38 AM
In this day and age, whether we like it or not, the automobile is king.

There are more than 3.7 million licensed drivers in Wisconsin, each who enjoy the convenience, ease of travel, and freedom provided by their vehicle. While owning a vehicle is perhaps considered a liability due the cost associated with it, the ability to move freely and at your own will is certainly an asset.

Over the last year, a great deal of attention has been paid to Wisconsin's transportation wants and needs, at all levels of government. Most notably, the discussion — and potential construction — of a commuter rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. For years, supporters of such a rail line have spoken at great length about the benefits of a rail system, while at the same time, chided those who believe a single-line, medium speed train will never replace the automobile. This debate has culminated into an agreement between the Jim Doyle and Barack Obama administrations to build a rail line regardless of cost, and irrespective of public opinion.

With a plan in place to move hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal government to the state, a handful of like-minded legislators — in this case, the Democrat-controlled Joint Finance Committee — moved quickly to approve $810 million in federal funds, with little debate and without the approval of the full Legislature.

The remaining 116 lawmakers with an explicit obligation to review and approve, or disapprove, the finances of the state were cut out of the largest single appropriation of funds in state history. That alone should be cause for concern, as this project was approved through political expediency, rather than sound public discourse and debate.

Since that time, federal, state and local officials who support the train have been crowing about its potential to effectively move people from one point to the next, as well as provide numerous environmental benefits along the way. Further, they've talked about "job creation" and the stimulation of local economies as reasons why the general public should come to its collective senses and embrace the project.

However, public sentiment regarding the train is caustic and average citizens who enjoy the freedom of their vehicle do not particularly care for government officials seeking to transform their way of life through a massive taxpayer-funded train. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary went so far as to send a warning signal to the next Governor of Wisconsin, whoever that may be, that this train cannot be stopped. I tend to disagree.

Just recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie put his foot down and effectively stopped a similar rail project from going forward in that state. The comparison of New Jersey to Wisconsin is eerily similar. Proponents of the rail had been working for years towards their goal, and in 2009, the project was given the green light. A long-fought battle for their ideal of more publicly-funded transit options was finally over. But in 2010, a new Governor was sworn in, one who recognized the financial burden the project would have on the state, and in less than one month, the New Jersey rail line project was mothballed. Thus, I believe there is an opportunity to delay the Wisconsin rail project, if not shelve it altogether.

Nothing is cast in stone and Wisconsin remains a free and sovereign state with the ability to determine its own fate in this regard. This $810 million train is anticipated to cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year just to maintain and service, with no assurance it will generate the ridership numbers touted by supporters. In addition, the costs per rider may be a great deal more than expected, as getting to and from your destination may require more than just hopping on a train.

Finally, I do not believe the majority of Wisconsin motorists are ready to alter their normal driving habits in lieu of a train which offers fewer options and less freedoms afforded them by their current mode of transportation. They understand the costs and the benefits associated with both, and more than likely, they recognize an $810 million dollar rail line may be of little to no use in their daily lives. This train project should be stopped before it leaves the station, and before the taxpayers get run over by yet another high-priced and grandiose government idea.

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