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”).

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.