Was Politics Evident in Newest Round of Rail Grants?

I wasn’t privy to the decisionmaking behing the newest round of rail grants made by the U.S. Department of Transportation, but the snubbing of the State of Wisconsin smells a lot like political payback. Recall that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker nixed the high-speed rail project in his state.

Now, it may seem odd that the State of Wisconsin threw its hat in the ring to rangle federal grant money for an intercity rail line, namely the Hiawatha Line linking downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee. But, conventional rail is not high-speed rail. Moreover, the Hiawatha Line is one of the top performers in the Amtrak system, achieving some of the highest ridership and on-time performance goals. As Ken Orski has noted, this round of U.S. Department of Transportation grants are notable for their pragmatism in incrementally upgrading the nation’s intercity passenger rail network over implementing a grand high-speed rail vision (despite the rhetoric). So, an objective observer could be excused for thinking the rejection of the Wisconsin grant request certainly seems like a snub.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal columnist Patrick McIlharen has a more extensive political analysis of this decisions. McIlharen writes:

“Sorry: Politics is as it ever was, which is why federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was passing out $2 billion this week. It was money Florida didn’t want to start a rail line it couldn’t afford. Its governor said no after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker managed to quash a proposed $810-million-for-starters Milwaukee-to-Madison train that would average 69 mph and need endless taxpayer subsidies.

“Spend the billions instead to fix crumbling bridges? Just save it? Don’t be silly: LaHood made a show of redistributing that cash to other train projects, just to teach Wisconsinites and, now, Floridians that their frugality is futile.

“And when Walker sought $150 million for new trains to improve long-established, well-used train service from Milwaukee to Chicago, LaHood had his revenge: Money would go to “reliable people,” he said, to states that buy into the dream. Places that elect uppity penny-pinchers? Get lost.”

Of course, the bigger issue is that the Obama Administration is falling short on the promise of pursuing “evidence-based” public policy, as I have pointed out along with others in previous blog posts and an article in the National Review (“Evidence-Based Pretense”).