Debra J. Saunders

In the last decade, the symbol for profligate federal spending was the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" -- a huge proposed span that would link the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, population 7,500, to an airport on Gravina Island. Powerful Alaska Republican lawmakers tried to stick American taxpayers with a huge chunk of the tab for this dubious project.

This decade, the symbol for federal pork-barrel excess may well be Trains to Nowhere -- and if Democrats get their way, those boondoggles could span the country. At least in blue states.

Last month, voters in Wisconsin and Ohio elected Republican governors. Rather than just talking about spending less, both Ohio's John Kasich and Wisconsin's Scott Walker had pledged, if elected, to reject funds earmarked for high-speed rail projects in the 2009 Obama stimulus package. Kasich said he would say no to $385 million for a train connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Walker said he would reject $810 million for a train from Madison to Milwaukee.

Both Kasich and Walker understood: Just because Washington is throwing around money, that doesn't mean taxpayers get a free ride.

There is no guarantee that if you build high-speed rail, passengers will come. As Randal O'Toole of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute noted, "The Ohio and Wisconsin projects aren't even worthy of being called high-speed rail." The average speed for the Ohio's "3C" line is projected at 38.5 miles per hour; the speed for the Wisconsin line would average 59 mph. In short, these "high-speed" trains wouldn't even go faster than cars.

With round-trip Madison-Milwaukee fares projected to range from $44 to $66, it could be cheaper for one person to drive and certainly cheaper for two. And you can always take the bus.

Walker argued that Wisconsin, facing a $2.5 billion budget deficit next year, doesn't need to be saddled with the $7.5 million annual cost to operate the train.

Train enthusiasts argued that Walker had it all wrong. You don't say no to a free car just because you have to pay for gas and other operating costs.

But Wisconsin voters did not agree. The St. Norbert College Survey Center poll found that 55 percent of Wisconsin voters opposed taking the ostensibly free rail money.

After they were elected, Walker and Kasich asked the Obama administration to allow them to spend that $1.2 billion rail money on other projects in their states. Walker wanted to fix his state's bridges and highways. Kasich asked that, if the U.S. Department of Transportation refused the request, Ohio's $385 million go to the U.S. Treasury to reduce the federal deficit.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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