Ohio, Wisconsin Reject High-Speed Rail Funds

Published December 20, 2010

Newly elected Republican Governors John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have kept their campaign pledges, reasserting they will remove their states from the Obama administration’s ambitious high-speed rail project.

In declining to accept the federal funds, the two governors-elect gave up nearly $1.2 billion in stimulus funds the federal government had made available for high-speed rail projects in their states.

Despite the stimulus funds, the states would still have been on the hook for millions of dollars in annual operating costs, and economic analyses indicated few passengers would ride the trains.

Cheaper by Car
In Wisconsin, for example, a round-trip fare between Madison and Milwaukee would cost roughly $50 per person, even though the cities are less than 80 miles apart along Interstate 94. With a round trip between the two cities by automobile requiring only about six gallons of gasoline, depending on vehicle type, a high-speed rail ticket would cost a solo traveler at least twice as much as what the traveler would pay in gasoline driving between the two cities.

For a family of four, rail would be at least eight times as expensive as the cost of gasoline.

The Milwaukee-Madison line would have connected with an envisioned circuit connecting Chicago with Minneapolis/St. Paul.

As a candidate, Walker called the $810 million his state was to receive for the project a waste of taxpayer money, and he even set up a Web site—Notrain.com—highlighting his objections to the expenditure. Specifically, Walker said he did not want to commit the state to the required annual operating subsidies once the rail line was in operation.

Feds Reject Alternate Uses
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has since redistributed the money for the Wisconsin and Ohio passenger-rail projects to other states. Walker and Kasich had asked that the funds instead be used for roads and bridges in their states, but LaHood denied their request and sent the money elsewhere.

“While I would have preferred to have the $810 million reallocated to repair our crumbling roads and bridges, I am glad that the [state] transportation fund will not be on the hook for a minimum of $7.5 million of operating subsidies every year,” Walker told the Wall Street Journal (December 10, 2010).

High Speed in Name Only
Ohio’s Kasich likewise objected to what he saw as an endless stream of subsidies his financially hard-pressed state would have to cough up.

In addition, the Ohio train project would have been “high speed” in name only. The $385 million Ohio was to receive for a line connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland would have produced a rail system with a top speed of only 79 mph.

Dubious Profitability
Marc Scribner, a land-use and transportation policy analyst at the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, sees politics at play regarding the federal reallocation of funds. “The Obama administration was essentially reacting to Governors-elect Walker and Kasich’s campaign platform,” he said.

“The claims that either of these low-density corridors would ever break even, let alone turn a profit, are completely absurd,” Scribner added.

Florida could be next. Gov. Rick Scott (R), who, like Walker and Kasich, was elected in November, campaigned against spending state funds to help pay for a controversial 84-mile passenger-rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando. 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington. D.C.