Monday, June 5, 2017

What's missing from the Tommy Thompson transportation revival

[Updated from 6/3/17]  Wisconsin's road-builders are nostalgically pitching a Tommy Thompson revival as part of a public relations campaign to convince the Governor and his GOP-led legislature to borrow and spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to add more unaffordable lanes to many major Wisconsin highways.

Ah, the good old days:

Mobility 2000 was an ambitious plan for every mode of transportation in Wisconsin that a tremendously popular governor, beginning his second term, threw his energy and political capital behind. At the official unveiling of Mobility 2000 on April 20, 1991, Gov. Thompson laid out his vision: “Today I am pleased to unveil a comprehensive initiative that addresses the transportation needs and challenges critical to Wisconsin’s continued economic success.”
But "every mode of transportation..." as the road-builders' op-ed claims, and "a comprehensive initiative," with which then-Gov. Thompson apparently credited himself?

Please! Tommy talked a great game about the value of rail, but at a crucial moment Tommy put himself and the City of Milwaukee on a siding, because when these pols talk about "transportation," they really mean highways and nothing else. 

Tommy Thompson pulled the rug out from under the Milwaukee light rail plan he had endorsed and planned with the administration of then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist when right-wing, pro-suburban talk radio began blasting Thompson and his light rail coordination.

Light rail is popular across the US
I worked for Norquist in those days, sat through a presentation with charts and visual aids in the Mayor's office that Thompson and his staffers had prepared, and dealt with Thompson's doing a 180 on the whole production.

I've told that story in a Journal Sentinel op-ed:

The railroad not taken
In late January 1997, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson and aides showed [a Milwaukee-Waukesha] two-county transportation plan to local officials and asked them to support the package even if they disliked one or another element. As policy director to then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, I attended the meeting at which Thompson made his pitch. Though opposed to special [bus] lanes, Norquist agreed not to attack the plan.
Light rail already was controversial: The late business leader George Watts said publicly in late 1996 that light rail could deliver 'strangers' into unsuspecting communities and threaten their property and children - a remark some felt was racist. And 'light rail' was and continues to be aimed as a partisan, fear-laden phrase against Milwaukee and its urban, Democratic majority on conservative talk radio and in some Republican-dominated suburbs.
Sensing a backlash in Thompson's base, an administration spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a Feb. 1, 1997 article - just days after Thompson's presentation to Norquist - that not 'a nickel' of state money would be spent on light rail in Milwaukee.
And here's an excerpt from a 2010 blog posting:
Talk radio has role in transportation mess
Gov. Tommy Thompson and his state DOT at the time crafted a regional East-West Corridor transportation plan that called for more than a billion dollars of spending and improvements - - most for highways in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties, and also for a starter light rail system...

I sat in as a mayoral staffer on Tommy's presentation of the plan in Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist's office; Tommy brought along a brace of high-ranking officials and their time-line boards and their optimism. They left with an agreement from Norquist that while the Mayor wasn't happy with all elements of the plan, he would not attack it.

But talk radio went nuts over light rail.

They pressured legislators in Madison to block it - - at one point, then Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield) followed up and inserted language in the state budget outlawing any state spending on light rail consideration in Milwaukee County - - and pressed Waukesha County officials to kill the line.

Tommy quickly abandoned his own plan. 

I remember Larry Sandler, the Journal Sentinel's transportation reporter, calling me for my reaction to a statement that Tommy's people were sandbagging the plan by pledging that not a nickel of state money would finance the plan's light rail piece.

I was dumbfounded, as I had heard Tommy just a few days earlier selling, touting it as he held court in Norquist's office.

Even efforts to the rescue Tommy's plan by removing Waukesha County soil from the light rail route wasn't enough to prevent its demise.
And here's another excerpt from a 2008 posting nine years ago to the day:
Tommy Thompson, Fearing Talk Radio, Killed Milwaukee Light Rail in 1997
Just for the record...let's remember that in 1997, it was then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, The Man Who Loved Trains And Later Yearned To Be US Secretary of Transportation, who killed his administration's light rail plan for Milwaukee.

Had Tommy stood up to the local conservative talk radio hosts who still use "light rail" as an all-purpose anti-urban code phrase, workers and students commuting from Waukesha could be riding the rails with some of that $4-gallon gas money in their pockets.

Hundreds of thousands of riders a year would be taking the train to Miller Park.

New stations would be on the drawing board in advance of construction-hell in the Zoo Interchange coming for four years beginning in 2012.

With light rail leading the way, the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line would also be operating, because the public, enamored of rail's conveniences in the city, and to the west, would also have wanted, demanded, a rail option to the south - - especially as they are looking at eight years of construction from the Mitchell Interchange all the way to Illinois on I-94.

And downtown would be serviced by both systems, connecting at the new InterModal station, then branching across the city to the airport and the suburbs, as is happening in many cities nationally...

But Tommy was too interested in playing it safe, sticking to the script, and sticking it to Milwaukee, too...

Tommy blew it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article as always. Tommy was known for stabbing people in the back when political winds shifted.