David Hoppe

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:: High-speed rail blind-sided

Our shrinking ambitions

By David Hoppe

People who want to see the creation of a Midwestern high-speed rail network met at IUPUI a couple of weeks ago to lick their wounds. Although public transportation wasn't on the ballot in the most recent elections, it received a major drubbing. If you know a high-speed rail fan, that person has reason to look a little shell-shocked.

Only a year ago it seemed the country was finally taking the first steps toward creating a 21 st century transportation system. The Obama administration was calling on states to submit proposals to upgrade their rail infrastructure as part of its strategy to stimulate the economy.

The prospects were particularly exciting in the Midwest. Various states in our region, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, have been working on plans to connect key cities through a regional network for years. Lines were drawn on maps showing how Indianapolis, for example, could serve as a connector between Chicago and Cincinnati. In Illinois, work began on a route between Chicago and St. Louis and, to the north, progress was being made in linking Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin with the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

For supporters of high-speed rail, the virtues of this project are so obvious and abundant it almost hurts to continue repeating them. First, there are jobs. Thousands of people could be put to work building and maintaining high-speed rail lines and all the ancillary services and products associated with them. Then there's the environmental impact. Instead of paving over new tracts of land ala I-69, high-speed rail could, in many cases, redevelop existing lines. Better still, a high-speed rail system would reduce regional automobile and air travel, saving fuel and cutting emissions.

But even more important, building a regional high-speed rail system would flex the kind of public-spirited muscle not seen in this country since the creation of interstate highways in the 1950s. Just as that national project redefined American regional economies, a Midwestern high-speed rail network would create a new economic reality in this part of the country, creating productive synergies among the various participating cities.

Throughout history, economic vitality has been linked to breakthroughs in transporting people and goods from one place to the next. Having seen the economy in their part of the country battered for the better part of 30 years, Midwestern high-speed rail advocates had reason to believe that real progress was in sight.

The November elections changed that. Wisconsin and Ohio both elected Republican governors that, incredibly, say they don't want to build rail lines, even though they've received Federal monies to go ahead with projects in their states.

Wisconsin's Governor-elect Scott Walker says he'll scrap the Milwaukee to Madison line that is scheduled to open in 2013. Ohio's new Guv, John Kasich, says he'll do the same with lines intended to connect Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

Adding insult to injury, Wisconsin's Walker says he wants to take the $810 million his state's planners have succeeded in winning for their rail project and spend it on highways.

All of this must make Indiana's Mitch Daniels happy as a Grinch on the night before Christmas. Daniels has made a habit of turning a deaf ear toward rail advocates, choosing to focus on highways instead. When neighboring states called meetings or announced plans to get the high-speed rail ball rolling, Indiana was otherwise engaged.

As far as local high-speed rail advocates were concerned, the job in Indiana was to convince Gov. Daniels that he needed to get with the program, lest our state lose Federal dollars to states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

So much for that.

Where Daniels might once have appeared out-of-step and retrograde, yoking his state to a form of transportation with a manifestly unsustainable fuel source, now he seems like a visionary. Everybody wants to be like Mitch. National pundits like George Will, David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan sing his praises.

But the fact that other states are backing up to Indiana doesn't make us a leader. We may not be as awash in red ink as our neighbors, but we're hardly an engine of prosperity, either. For all the claims that others make for him as a reformer, Indiana under Daniels looks an awful lot like it always has - a haven for crony capitalists more concerned about protecting their own interests than investing in the state's future. The latest case of incest between state regulators and Duke Energy is symptomatic of a back-scratching culture that has resulted in the state's bottom-feeding rankings for environmental quality, welfare services, elder care and educational attainment.

It's indicative of the failure of our politics that a big idea like Midwestern high-speed rail can be so casually dismissed as being too expensive or, worse, simply unpopular, given the sentimental attachment we have to our cars. Rather than talking about ambition and investment in the future, we talk about tax cuts. We're stuck in an age, as someone once said, where our leaders know the cost of everything - and the value of nothing.