Decade Challenge: Rejecting High-Speed Rail Remains a Generational Mistake

Wisconsin Public Radio's "Derailed" series details a missed opportunity, one made worse by the looming climate crisis

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Eastbound Talgo Special in Shawnee, Kansas on February 13, 2018. The train was returning to Chicago after several weeks in Pueblo, Colorado, where the Talgo set (built for Wisconsin but never operated there) was tested in preparation for use on the Cascades. The consist included P42DC locomotives 137 and 158, SC-44 locomotive #4617, and the Talgo set. Photo by Tyler Silvest from Olathe, Kansas [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] Via Wikimedia Commons.


Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to catch up on a few things, one of which was to listen to Wisconsin Public Radio’s terrific six-part podcast series, “Derailed.” As an avid podcast listener, I was looking forward to the series when it was announced, but had fallen a bit behind, because the first time I pressed play on Episode 1 in my podcast app back in October, I wanted to throw my phone out the window. 

As well-produced and expertly reported as “Derailed” is, it is infuriating to revisit the decision to turn down the high-speed rail project that Wisconsin was granted $810 million to build. It’s so blindingly obvious that this is something we should have jumped at the chance to accept. Listening to the 130-plus minutes of audio was a bit of a masochistic exercise. Maybe I should follow it up with a deep dive on the job market for journalists in December 2008 (when I graduated college) or an episodic retelling of my romantic failings in high school, if I were to continue on with this thread of auditory self-harm.

It’s not like I needed a reminder that Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans made a generational mistake to say no to the train. Every time I travel to Madison, or friends from Madison come to visit here in Milwaukee, the topic of what might have been with high-speed rail inevitably comes up, and we all shake our heads and sigh over how we could’ve met at the train station instead of driving (in probably cataclysmic weather) to see each other. 

This missed opportunity goes well beyond shared disappointment among friends, of course. The opportunities for better connecting Wisconsin’s two largest urban cities are endless. And it’s beyond frustrating to hear, through listening to the series, just how close we were to being able to seize those opportunities. 

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The “what-if” moments presented in the series are as abundant as they are disheartening. I won’t recount them all here; you should really give this whole thing a listen. Though, as a Milwaukeean, the Talgo saga and hearing about those trains sitting idle in an Indiana Amtrak facility for years as the state of Wisconsin pays $50 million for nothing (instead of building those trains in one of the city’s most job-starved neighborhoods) is one that certainly stands out. 

But one thing that’s especially difficult to stomach in this gut-wrenching revisitation is how many of the people involved in the demise of this project have gone on to bigger and better things. Scott Walker spent most of the decade as Wisconsin’s governor after winning two more gubernatorial elections. Robin Vos, who made a cameo in the state Joint Finance Committee that voted against upholding Talgo’s inked deal (which directly led to tens of millions of dollars the state lost in a lawsuit), is now running the State Assembly, and is one of the most powerful politicians in the state, pushing it further and further to the right. Charlie Sykes, the talk radio host on the Milwaukee-based station who spent 23 years playing to the Republican suburbs and fanning the flames of partisan division, is now a prominent pundit on cable news as well as the author of several books. Walker, Vos and Sykes are probably the three individuals chiefly responsible for the demise of high-speed rail and they have all seen their careers advance in the years that followed. There appears to be very few consequences for poor decision-making in the Republican Party. 

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As comprehensive and engrossing as “Derailed” is at retelling the saga of this missed opportunity, there’s one component that could be added were the series to have been longer: Climate change. 

As report after report paints an increasingly dire picture of the climate crisis around the globe, it’s becoming increasingly clear that major, meaningful, urgent action needs to be taken to make steep cuts in emissions in the coming decades. Plans to address future warming of the planet must include a significant shift away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. 

Put simply: We really, really, really need to stop driving so much. That’s the piece that’s at the often-unspoken core of the argument for investing more in transit options like trains and streetcars and buses. High-speed rail linking major urban centers in the Midwest is exactly the type of project that our nation should be investing in if we’re serious about providing transit alternatives that might limit a climate change catastrophe -- something climate scientists are warning could be a reality by the end of the next decade (and they’ve been right before).

High-speed rail is a key component of the Green New Deal proposed in early 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, and as the most prominent piece of legislation addressing the climate crisis, it warrants consideration as part of this debate about what happened in Wisconsin.

The price tag of $810 million to build the high-speed rail line might have seemed high, but it’s also close to half as much as it cost the state of Wisconsin to rebuild the Zoo Interchange -- a cool $1.5 billion (and another $13.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the project). The price tag also doesn’t seem so big when you consider the construction of high-speed rail  necessary to the future of transportation in the Midwest as the climate crisis (perhaps inevitably) worsens as the 21st Century unfolds. 

“Derailed” is an outstanding series, and takes you on a wild ride through the political ins and outs of how things fell apart, and what that means for Wisconsin. From the project’s inception with Gov. Tommy Thompson, to its ray of hope with Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Frank Busalacchi (and then-Sen. Joe Biden!) to its demise at the hands of talk radio and Gov. Scott Walker and the still-ongoing fallout that ensued, it’s an essential listen to understanding a true transformative opportunity that was squandered for purely political reasons. 

Saying no to high-speed rail was more than a generational mistake. It’s more than a “decade challenge”-style curiosity for political wonks and podcast listeners across the state. It was a missed opportunity to take an important first step to rebuild American transportation infrastructure at a time where we really, desperately need to. 

As we make decisions about transit priorities moving forward, these failings of the past and the coming crisis of the future must be present in the minds of our elected leaders. 


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