Despite Scott Walker's glib political style and national ambitions, Wisconsin is starting to realize his ineptitude as an administrator. The cost is hundreds of millions of dollars and a state lagging way behind the slow but steady national economic recovery, but it is most painfully obvious in the failure of his mass transit policy, which has begun negatively impacting his efforts to win presidential consideration on the GOP's 2016 ticket.
Much of that failure permeates the 175 pages (and growing) of documents filed with the Dane County circuit court, in Talgo vs. Walker et al -- being decided by Judge Juan Colas on basic contract law, which experts believe is likely to be respected by a conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court.
A key round was won Sept. 10 by Talgo when Judge Colas, without calling it a partisan effort by Atty. Gen. J.B. Van Hollen to protect his political cronies, refused to halt the breach of contract case. The state has legal maneuvers left, which the AG's office won't discuss, but Talgo has good reason to hope for successful, if slow, vindication. Legal insiders expect the state to eventually lose big, since contract law is something honored by all courts despite political leanings.
Lawyers credit Talgo, a Spanish train company, with operating carefully, not vindictively. Even so, CEO Antonio Perez raised a crucial point in 2012 that lingers in international business conferences to this day, saying: "I don't see how any company in the future would choose to do business with a state when the state has shown that it cannot be trusted to honor contracts that it has signed."
Talgo's shrewd and aggressive attorney, Lester Pines, put it succinctly in a September 25 interview: "Talgo has been treated better by totalitarian governments than it has by Walker."
Taxpayers have not yet absorbed the full weight of the lawsuit's costs, despite the state having already spent $50 million on trains, and owing some $15 million more. The likely outcome is that Talgo will own the trains and still expect more money, and the state won't benefit at all because it reneged on the contract to buy, test and maintain the trains.
Talgo, through Pines, understands the complicated state statutes and is not seeking monetary compensation in this court round. Rather, Talgo wants full rights to dispose of the property it created -- trains that Talgo has wrapped in cellophane stored in its Milwaukee factory. The property is two train sets the state agreed to buy to expand the thriving Amtrak Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago. Still, Pines said that monetary demands are on the horizon, first before the state claims board and then, as likely necessary, in a separate lawsuit, perhaps in the coming weeks.
Walker's narrow mass transit vision is mounting into a massive fiscal ruination for the state economy.
The Milwaukee BizTimes, hardly a bastion of liberal thinking, accurately reported in September that annual ridership on the Hiawatha route has increased more than 100 percent in the last 10 years -- now 832,500 Milwaukee-Chicago riders a year according to Walker's own Department of Transportation -- an expansion Talgo and Walker's predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, accurately predicted in making the train deal.
Now Hiawatha has become Amtrak's busiest and most profitable Midwest line, and even Republicans are squealing for the service to expand. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari put the logic behind this growth rather succinctly: "Anyone who has had to drive I-94 knows that between congestion and construction, [Amtrak] is more reliable, more convenient, more comfortable and it can be less expensive when you consider the true cost of driving, [like gas, parking and tolls]."
Pines was somewhat more outraged and mystified by Walker -- and outspoken about the governor's behavior. "The state has already spent $50 million on these trains, [and] that is lost to the taxpayers because of violation of Talgo's clear contractual rights," he said. "Walker has pissed away this money because the deal was originally made by Gov. Doyle, and he can't stand that. And you can quote me. Politically, no matter what it costs taxpayers, he refuses to budge.
"We've tried to deal and he won't," Pines continued. "He is either stupid or naive, and since all his wasted money was funded from state bonds, I fully expect bondholders to start suing when they realize what he's cost them."
Belatedly, Republican legislators and business leaders want more mass transit options to thrive in Wisconsin. So, while publicly they are not ready to abandon Walker, they sure are opposing his transportation policies in conferences and meetings. It is only in private they are so openly annoyed at the anti-train and anti-mass-transit beast he unleashed on the state to win election back in 2010.
Their remorse is palpable, if quiet, for not listening to bipartisan transit planners decades ago. Today's transit reformers from All Aboard Wisconsin even met this September in D.C. with Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson and Reps. Paul Ryan, Tom Petri and Reid Ribble about the business community concern -- and how Wisconsin's public transit system is literally starving as other states nurture and expand such services.
Democrat Gov. Doyle assuredly loved autos and freeways but also had WisDOT develop rounded transportation systems of highways, trains, freight routes, rubber wheeled buses supported by state funds, and regional connectivity for expanded commerce and job centers. After taking office, Walker saw political gain in creating a curious affinity between the public hatred of taxes, regardless of the services they pay for, and people's love of cars regardless of the realities about construction costs and environmental pollution.
As Milwaukee County executive, he reduced bus service and fought defined bike and bus routes, opposed using available federal funds for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's streetcar concepts, and blocked the KRM, a 35-mile train route with Metra links into Chicago. As governor, he and his minions even repealed the KRM funding mechanisms ,despite six years of deep planning by business and community leaders to elevate passenger and freight service in southeastern Wisconsin.
Worse, after years of state planning and millions of dollars in preparation, Walker turned down President Barack Obama's offer of $810 million in federal funding for higher-speed train service between Milwaukee and Madison. That project was intended as the opening round in a Minneapolis-St. Paul route through Wisconsin, and the building of a national train network with Wisconsin as a key player in spurring commerce and job growth thanks to its alternatives to highways. Wisconsin taxpayers have always provided the federal government more taxes than what's spent within the state, so all Walker did was cheat them of federal largess, which was quickly grabbed by other states.
But at least Wisconsin's fetish for autos and highways was preserved.
It's taken two years for residents to understand the consequences of Walker run amok, and it's not just the hours spent choking on stalled freeways behind massive trucks, along with all the associated costs and delays. The public now gets to watch Walker using taxpayer-paid state planes to fly between his mansion in Madison and his home in Wauwatosa. As detailed by Lisa Kaiser in the Shepherd Express, he is costing taxpayers more every year than it would take to maintain the Milwaukee to Madison high-speed train.
Bottlenecks on I-94 have swelled. One mishap blocks traffic for hours. Plans to avoid destroying veterans' cemeteries and beloved family neighborhoods have led to fancy double-decker highway concepts that would linger fossil fuel fumes longer and closer to the ground while destroying any kind of scenic view you may have from the road.
Building more freeway lanes has proven irresponsible antiquated thinking. Businesses are screaming for expanded transit services, forcing high-speed rail planners to look at routes from La Crosse to Milwaukee on existing freight tracks in northern Wisconsin that, except for a Watertown leg, would bypass thriving Madison. Even Iowa, under Republican leadership, is ready to eat Wisconsin's lunch. There are now plans underway to connect Minnesota with Chicago using high-speed train service, bypassing Wisconsin's commerce centers.
Walker, as the recent state budget confirmed, is no more in control of his own legislature than Speaker John Boehner is in control of the national GOP House members. To make matters worse, his anti-train rhetoric appears to have unleashed a tea party demon he cannot control.
Talgo awaits court permission to talk to highly interested third parties but -- as Atty. Pines details in the Wisconsin lawsuit -- Walker didn't wait for the court to decide, but acted as if he owned the trains, and even tried to make deals with third parties. Count that as another basis for Talgo's claim of contract breach.
The price of this mismanagement runs deeper than just the state's finances. The mistreatment of Talgo did not happen in a vacuum. International companies have taken grim notice. In public they want to work with all governments, but in backstage meetings things are different. They may make deals over agriculture crops like ginseng, one CEO told me, but don't look for long-term manufacturing alliances if Walker can't be trusted.
Talgo's frightening story has become well known to other major foreign companies looking to establish US centers of opportunity. When looking at states for major plants, they weigh far more than taxes. Things like integrity, trustworthiness, commitment to public service and future good thinking. Businesses that backed Walker in 2010 are now kicking themselves over losing an intelligent mass transit system, which requires cooperation between private and public sectors.
Even if Walker is defeated in 2014 for governor, mass transit experts say he's set Wisconsin back a full decade behind neighboring states. His ineptitude in understanding mass transit is merely one factor, a key factor, in his failure as an administrator, and a glaring example of what not to do if your goal is increasing jobs and business revenues at a rate comparable to other Midwest states.
Dominique Paul Noth served as senior editor for all feature coverage at the Milwaukee Journal after decades as its film and drama critic, then was appointed special assistant to the publisher and the company's first online producer. For the past decade he was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.
Photo: Flickr user Edward David, creative commons licensed.