Madison media are going to have to listen carefully and dig for the truth when Governor-elect Scott Walker speaks if Thursday's State Journal story on rail funding is a sign of things to come.
"He [Walker] said a precedent for such a maneuver was set in 1998, when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson — with the help of Wisconsin's congressional delegation — used $241 million meant for light rail between Milwaukee and Waukesha County to fund the Marquette Interchange."
There's a nugget of truth there, but the bulk of it, and the conclusion are false; I was involved as one of Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist's representatives. Walker got involved in 2002, plenty of city, county and state officials know the sequence of events - - and these are the facts that reveal Walker's errors:
Thompson did, through Republican congressional reps, have the $241 million transportation account transferred briefly so it could be accessed by the state for highways, but then-Congressman Tom Barrett re-segregated the funding.
Initially, the account was $289 million, but some was transferred by the feds elsewhere because the local governments here could not reach a consensus on what project or projects would get the funding.
The money initially was never labeled "light rail"-only money by the feds. Many local activists hoped it would be light rail seed money, but that never happened. One early idea for its use was to finance a bus-only lane on I-94; then-Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament liked the idea, but Norquist helped get Ament to drop his support for the bus-lane and to support using the funding for light rail.
And the outcome got further clouded when then-Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley got his foot in the door, and eventually blew up light rail as the money's ultimate purpose.
A state plan to build light rail, and to expand I-94 with regular traffic lanes also stalled, too.
Planning gridlock. The pot had been shrunk once at significant loss, so Tommy got, I believe, Rep. Tom Petri (R) to put all the remaining $241 million more under the state's control - - which meant it was going into a highway project somewhere - - until then-Congressman Tom Barrett, (D), managed to override Petri and move the funding back into an account that the state did not unilaterally control.
So Thompson took the initiative, came to Norquist and suggested that there be a compromise: the state would take half the money for transportation purposes of its choosing and the city and county would share the other half and determine what its projects or purposes would be.
Waukesha County was cut out of the decision-making because it had not been in the mix from the beginning.
Tommy even said "if you want to spend you share on light rail, I won't oppose it: I just want to get something done."
He said it a dinner meeting at Grenadier's restaurant in Milwaukee, which included Thompson, Norquist, Pat Curley, then-City of Milwaukee chief lobbyist, plus Mark Bugher, Thompson's chief of staff at the time, and myself.
So the deal was struck, all parties subsequently approved it, and most of the state's $120.5 million share went into the Marquette Interchange.
Some, but not all: the state contributed to some of the local government projects; I believe the state paid into the Sixth St. Bridge construction, the Park East tear down and the new state park created in the Harbor off the Summerfest grounds.
$91.5 million of the local share was not designed for projects until recently, when Congress, again at now-Mayor Tom Barrett's urging, divided the money 60% to the city as downtown light rail/streetcar starter funds, and 40% to the County for buses.
Barrett went to Congress for a split because Walker had deadl-ocked years of negotiations and had refused a 50-50% division of the $91.5 million because he wanted it all spent on County buses.
I know it's a long story, but I also know that Walker knows a lot more than the cursory and flat-out false tale he told the State Journal.
I'm telling ya' - - you gotta watch that Walker.
Further point: Walker continues to claim, as he did during the campaign, that the state will have to pay $7.5 million annually millions to operate the train. But note that the Milwaukee Journal's Larry Sandler in his Thursday account of the issue again reports that the annual operating cost to the state is about one-tenth of what Walker keeps claiming:
"Even with the federal government picking up the line's full construction cost, Walker has said he doesn't want state taxpayers to pay operating costs, projected at $7.5 million a year, starting in 2013. A state transportation official has said state taxpayers' share could be as little as $750,000 a year, if federal aid covers 90% of operating costs, as it does for Amtrak's existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line."