Over Thanksgiving, I drove to Milwaukee. I had a great weekend, except for all the driving I had to do — or rather I should say, all the sitting in traffic.

Last Wednesday, as I sat fuming on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, which had cleverly been disguised as a 16-lane parking lot, I pondered why we can’t seem to muster the political will to develop decent passenger rail transportation in this country. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment.

When I visit my sister in Milwaukee, I usually take Amtrak. The problem this time was that I also wanted to go to Madison, which is home to two dear friends from college, their new baby boy and beer in the University of Wisconsin student union — but there is no passenger rail service from Milwaukee to Madison.

Traveling to Milwaukee on Amtrak costs me about $160 round trip. That sounds like a lot of money. But traveling by car isn’t free either. I spent about $90 on gas and $15 in tolls getting from Ann Arbor to Milwaukee and home again. And I drive a compact car that gets about 30 mpg.

Gasoline isn’t the only cost of car travel, however. While I’m driving, I can’t nap, grade papers or write a column — all of which I have done while taking Amtrak’s Wolverine line from Ann Arbor to Chicago.

The Wolverine is often delayed. But that’s because freight trains have the right-of-way on Michigan’s tracks. The Hiawatha passenger rail service from Chicago to Milwaukee runs on tracks owned by Amtrak, so it never has to wait for freight traffic to pass and is always on time. But the Obama stimulus package contained funds to ease bottlenecks on the Wolverine line and improve signaling. Soon, it will be able to travel at 110 mph instead of its current 79, which will make it even more competitive. Finally, it’s not like driving always gets you there on time — as the two-hour traffic jam in downtown Chicago last Wednesday demonstrated.

So why isn’t there a passenger rail service to Madison?

Two Wisconsin politicians, Democrat Herb Kohl and Republican Tommy Thompson, have been pushing strenuously for it since the mid-1990s. This year, passenger rail seemed to become a reality with the promise of an $810-million federal grant from the stimulus. The grant would have started service from Milwaukee to Madison by 2013.

Then, Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker said he didn’t want the money. He reasoned the state couldn’t afford the annual $7.5 million in operating costs, despite state officials saying the federal government could pick up 90 percent of that cost. That would leave the state with annual operating costs of $750,000, according to a Nov. 21 story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Let’s see: Walker wants to turn down an $810-million federal grant and nearly $7 million in annual federal funds because his state can’t afford a mere $750,000 in annual subsidies. That sounds crazy — doubly so because $750,000 represents only about .05 percent of the state’s 2010 general fund revenues of $13.2 billion. It’s not like there’s a lot of savings to be had by canceling the program.

Apparently Walker dislikes the idea that any public subsidies go to freeloaders like me who want to ride a train.

But drivers get subsidies too. On my trip from Ann Arbor to Madison, I only paid about $15 in tolls — none of which were paid in Wisconsin and Michigan. Yet, it costs a lot of money to repair the highways, maintain signage and pay the state police to patrol the roads. That money comes primarily from taxpayers — not tolls.

Why should drivers get subsidized when train passengers don’t? Why should I have to pay for every penny of the cost of my rail ticket when we don’t tell drivers to personally pay for the snowplows that clear I-94 every winter?

Finally, investing in railways creates jobs. According the Journal-Sentinel, the rail-car manufacturer Talgo recently opened a facility that employs 125 workers in Milwaukee. If the Madison rail project dries up, Talgo has said it would consider moving its plant. That’s probably not what Wisconsin voters wanted when they put Walker in office to create jobs.

Perhaps Walker will reverse his poor decision, but if he doesn’t, hopefully Michigan Governor-elect and chief nerd Rick Snyder will learn from Walker’s mistakes. Lesson one is do no harm: put the federal grants Michigan has already gotten to good use by developing infrastructure.

And second, if Walker insists on throwing away Wisconsin’s money, grab as much of it as you can. More improvements to the Wolverine line and other Michigan rail travel would be quite welcome in this state — as would a company like Talgo moving to a depressed area in Detroit.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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