650 people pack Madison high-speed rail open house hosted by Minnesota DOT

Students from UW Milwaukee

At last night’s Madison high-speed rail open house I sat in the front row elbow-to-elbow with 650 people in a packed ballroom where people stood against the walls 5 deep.

Officials and consultants from Minnesota’s Department of Transportation came to offer technical answers about their study of possible routes passenger rail could take between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The audience came to ask questions but also to vent.

Before their time in the ballroom, Mayor Dave of Madison and a cadre of leaders spoke to the press. The crowd laughed and cheered when Mayor Dave said that Governor-elect Scott Walker needs to be a governor for the entire state and not just for some talk radio hosts in Milwaukee and Madison.

MN DOT estimates 650 people attended

Scott Walker – who still maintains the train is “dead” – did not appear, and no representative came to stand-in for the Governor-Elect. This was made clear when a man from the audience asked, “Is the Governor-Elect here or his representative?” The crowd waited, looked around, and then sent up a laugh and muttered en masse after it became clear the answer was “no”.

The moment that made the air sizzle came when a man stepped up to the microphone and said “How are we gonna pay for this? Are we gonna just go printing money? Will we have monopoly money?” A booming voice yelled from my right, “The highways do not pay for themselves!!” The man two seats to the left of me visibly jerked in his seat and yelled and a chorus of yelled insults and rebuttals followed while boos erupted behind us. The yelling was quickly equaled by people shushing and murmurring things like “settle down” as the speaker walked across the room in front of me.

One audience member asked, “What if the project is scrapped. How long until this comes back to us?”. This led to numerous snorts and huffing noises from people around me and one woman muttered “Then we’re screwed”. The official answer, I believe, was 5 years.

Another man from the audience said,”It seems to me you should add an all-Illinois route. Could this plan be realized purely through an all-Illinois route?”  Response: We were selected to study a Milwaukee to Minneapolis route. About half of the audience’s questions were answered with a similar statement.

An owner of several retail stores in Madison said, “I support the train, airporats and roads. …I ask those that have raised the question, ‘How do we pay for this?’ –  Would we save money if we did not build the airport? Would we save money if we did not build the roads to Madison? There is a season for everything. We just got through a political campaign season.This is now the season to govern. Take “liberal” or “democrat” out of this. Take “pro-business” out.  Make the best decision for the economy, for Wisconsin. Please.” Applause followed.

Most of the audience wore these stickers

Some in the audience gave their own comments on the rail financial picture. Ed Kuharski noted that railroads pay taxes to the  local village, town, or county that they run through while airports and highways have no corollary tax contribution to make. A woman [who I found out later was a tea party activist] got up to say that we could not afford the train on top of Wisconsin’s deficit.

One man said, ” Did the I-90 highway go through the same amount of scrutiny that this rail project did?”

Another got up to point out that the University of Kansas has done much research to establish that use of freight rail reduces wear and tear on highways.

Two comments that drew great laughter and applause: “Let me put it this way – if I’m going to buy a dress for 900$ and somebody is going to give me $600 for that dress why would you turn that down?” and from another woman, “I’m 72 – how much longer do you want me on the road?”

Badger Herald‘s video does a good job of capturing the event’s mood while its article goes into the methodology of the DOT study and next steps for the process.