As high-speed rail project falters, Obama’s vision of government remains unfulfilled

November 8, 2013

The gleaming red-and-white trains sit motionless in a cavernous warehouse in Century City, an industrial neighborhood that cranked out 100 million car and truck frames in its heyday. The seats are draped in plastic; an electronic screen on one reads, “Quiet Car. 11:10 a.m. 000 MPH.”

President Obama once hoped that these high-speed trains would be transporting passengers from Milwaukee to Madison, Wis., part of a broader system crisscrossing the Midwest and the nation.

But Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, rejected $823 million in funding that the federal government was offering, and the Transportation Department transferred the funds to California. The two trains now sit idle, with five employees of a Spanish manufacturer left behind to tend them.

High-speed rail was once a central part of Obama's vision for government — one in which the nation’s infrastructure, schools and health-care systems would be modernized to meet the challenges of globalization and expand the middle class.

But the abandoned Wisconsin rail project, and several others around the country, illustrate just how difficult — and incomplete — the effort has been. Even as he managed to get the federal government up and running again this past month, Obama’s larger project of redefining what government should do has been stymied by steady Republican opposition and public disenchantment with political leaders. And chronic problems with the rollout of provisions of the new health-care law have made Obama’s sales pitch even harder.

Opinions about the federal government.

While the high-speed project has made a tangible difference already in some parts of the country, key regions will be left out. In both the upper Midwest and Florida — two key planks of the president’s initial vision — residents find themselves without a viable high-speed option — and the manufacturing jobs that come with it.

“In terms of urban revitalization, this is the type of activity that would have generated good American jobs, and that would have provided work for people who needed work to support their families,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat and Obama allywho ran unsuccessfully against Walker in 2010 and 2012.

While Obama has framed the question in different ways over the past five years, he has consistently sought to convince Americans that well-run government is uniquely positioned to help secure their economic prosperity. After the 16-day shutdown ended last month, he argued that the impasse had affirmed the principle that “smart, effective government is important. It matters.”

“So let’s work together to make government work better instead of treating it like an enemy or purposely making it work worse,” Obama said.

‘Infrastructure of the future’

One of the biggest ideas was Obama’s high-speed rail initiative, which since 2009 has invested $12 billion in 32 states and the District of Columbia. More than one-third of that total went to California; much of the rest went to projects that Transportation Department spokeswoman Meghan Keck described as “laying the foundation for high-speed rail,” which Congress defines as 110 mph and above.

When he launched the high-speed rail push in early 2010, Obama called it “the infrastructure of the future.”

“I mean, it’s important to repave our roads; it’s important to repair our bridges so that they’re safe,” Obama said that year in Tampa. “But we want to start looking deep into the 21st century, and we want to say to ourselves, ‘There is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can’t.’ ”

But three key states rejected the funding altogether. Florida, for example, was in line to receive $2.4 billion for a rail project. But Republican Gov. Rick Scott turned down the offer, as did Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Walker, dooming the initiative in those three states. The Transportation Department later gave more than $2 billion from Florida’s share to 15 states and Amtrak.

In a recent interview, Walker said he determined it was cheaper to drive his 1998 Saturn to Madison from his home in suburban Wauwatosa than it would be to drive to downtown Milwaukee, park and take a fast train.

“Typically the reason people take mass transit is because it saves them time and/or money. This did neither,” he said, noting that he ran an ad touting his opposition to the project during his 2010 gubernatorial bid. “It was one of my well-received popular ads out there, because so many people shared that sentiment.”

Barrett — who has made reviving Century City one of his central missions — and many other Wisconsin Democrats feel differently. The city bought 84 acres of land in the industrial area in 2009 and razed 1.5 million square feet of buildings to make way for new development. A.O. Smith built car frames there from 1910 to 1996; Tower Automotive took over the plant in 1996 and built Dodge Ram trucks there for a decade before moving its operations to Mexico.

“As a little boy, I remember driving by there with my parents, and it was row after row of car frames. . . . The stacks got smaller and smaller,” Barrett said. “You can see America’s history all in this one plot of land.”

Talgo USA, the American subsidiary of a Spanish train manufacturer, agreed to pay $29,000 a month to occupy half of the 300,000-square-foot Building 36, which the city refurbished with two rail spurs and maintenance pits. The firm sourced many of the train’s components from local manufacturers — both the fiberglass panels in the passenger cars and ceiling panels designed for sound absorption came from Wisconsin firms — and it hired 80 workers to assemble and test the trains.

The company produced two trains that went to Oregon for service in the Pacific Northwest Cascades Corridor passenger rail line; the other two sit amid boxes of spare partshere in Milwaukee. Talgo filed a lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin this week seeking $66 million for unpaid bills, lost business and other damages.

Talgo spokeswoman Nora Friend said the firm had envisioned the facility as a launching pad to supply high-speed projects across the United States. But a boom never materialized, as Obama’s stimulus rail initiative fell victim to political pushback.

More than just rail cars

Unlike those in Europe or Asia, existing U.S. rail lines are unequipped to handle high-speed trains and are expensive to upgrade. Oregon is the only state where high-speed trains have been manufactured and delivered with stimulus funding, but the line from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., can only accommodate speeds of up to 79 mph.

Stimulus funding is also being used to upgrade tracks, build trains and improve electrification on four routes in the East and Midwest: Boston to Washington, Washington to Charlotte, Detroit to Chicago and Chicago to St. Louis.

The Chicago-to-St. Louis route — where trains will run at 110 mph along 75 percent of the route by 2015, shaving an hour off the commute — stands out as one of the bright spots. The Japanese firm Nippon Sharyo, which won a $352 million federal contract to provide passenger cars to the Midwest and California, helped revitalize Rochelle, Ill., by opening up a factory there last year that now employs 330 people.

The biggest project of all is slated for California, where a $68 billion line is envisioned to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco at up to 220 mph. But the effort has been beset with delays and a shifting price tag; engineering work has just begun on a 30-mile segment in Fresno, and officials project the full line won’t be open until 2029.

“The problem is there’s nothing to bid on,” Friend said. “The industry lacks a continuous demand for passenger equipment.”

As a result, just a handful of people still work here in Wisconsin’s Building 36.

“A lot of good people had jobs here, and were planning on having jobs here,” said Laurie Blum, a mechanic and one of five remaining Talgo employees on site. “All of a sudden, it was gone.”

People in the Milwaukee area are split on whether Walker should have pressed ahead with the project. In the neighborhood surrounding the Talgo facility, which is largely African American and low income, people see it as a lost economic opportunity.

“I just feel like the jobs are leaving from here,” said Regina Clark, a Democrat who is studying to be a medical assistant at Bryant & Stratton College, as she shopped for groceries at Lena’s Food Market.

But at a Colectivo Coffee shop in nearby Shorewood, Lisa Stamm questioned its utility.

“We’re not in a great metropolis,” said Stamm, a Republican who works in the private sector. “I’d rather see it go to education, something that would benefit the whole state.”

Steve Brunton, a polka band drummer waiting at the bar before performing at the Friday night fish fry at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, said standoffs on everything from the train project to the new health-care law reflect the limits of the nation’s political class.

“Nothing’s changed in Washington. Nothing ever changes in Washington,” Brunton said, a few miles away from the trains’ storage facility. “People get really discouraged about government.”

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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