The real reasons the GOP shuns trains

Friday, July 29, 2011

From a commentary by Dave Zweifel in The Capital Times:

Thanks to my now-retired colleague Ron McCrea, I’ve come across another attempt to explain this strange Republican anti-train phenomenon. An associate editor of the blog “AlterNet,” Sarah Jaffe, has five theories.

First, improved passenger rail requires big infrastructure and, hence, leaves a legacy. This legacy of a viable high-speed American rail system, of course, would belong to President Obama. And, heaven knows, Obama can’t be credited with anything.

Second, it would provide union jobs, which doesn’t fit at all with the Republican war against labor unions that is being waged so effectively by the party’s elected state governors, including our infamous Scott Walker.

Third, trains are viewed as promoting “socialism” because people riding together — as conservative columnist George Will put it —diminishes American individualism. People riding alone in their cars makes people resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make, Will has written.

Fourth is the urban vs. rural issue, which is essentially Rowen’s theory. Jaffe quotes CNN’s Steven Harrod, who says that many critics of passenger rail emotionally identify it as an enabler of cultural values they fear.

“Urban vs. rural. People of color vs. white people. Public investment of any kind has been branded by the conservative movement as a way for the government to take away money from hardworking, independent (white) people and give handouts to freeloaders, usually seen as nonwhite people,” she writes.

And fifth, according to Jaffe, is the fear that high-speed rail will change our lifestyles — and, by golly, we like our lifestyles!

“Conservatives who fear changes brought about by high-speed rail aren’t wrong, of course, that transportation will change us,” Jaffe adds. “The shape of our cities and suburbs for the past 50 years or more has been largely because of transportation. Without cars, we’d never have had suburbs, let alone exurbs.”

If Obama succeeded in making decent passenger rail accessible to 80 percent of the U.S. in the next 25 years, it would become time to encourage urban density rather than suburban sprawl, which, in turn, would bring about a shift from cars regardless of economic class.

Right-wingers don’t like that notion at all because, in their view, that promotes environmental awareness, energy savings and other concerns normally associated with liberalism.

Milwaukee aldermen approve downtown streetcar line

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From an article by Larry Sanders in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee aldermen voted 10-5 Tuesday to approve a modern streetcar line downtown.

In response to concerns raised by Comptroller W. Martin "Wally" Morics, aldermen agreed to limit spending to engineering for now, and to seek a review by the comptroller's office before releasing money for construction.

The measure now heads to Mayor Tom Barrett, the plan's chief advocate, for his signature.

Plans call for a 2.1-mile line, from the lower east side to the downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station, starting in 2014. Streetcars would run every 10 minutes on weekdays and every 15 minutes on weekends, late-night and early-morning hours.

The $64.6 million project would be funded by $54.9 million in long-idle federal transit aid and $9.7 million from a tax-incremental financing district, with fares, parking fees and advertising revenue covering the $2.65 million annual operating cost. The city is seeking additional federal aid for extensions that would add 1.5 miles to the line and boost the construction cost past $100 million.

Wind-powered car

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wisconsin turns inhospitable to green businesses

Thursday, July 21, 2011

From an article by Nathan J. Comp in The Isthmus:

A new report from the Brookings Institution sizing up the health of the nation's green economy shows Wisconsin ranks 13th in the number of green jobs, with Madison ranking fifth among cities.

Problem is that many of these jobs will likely disappear as a result of recent policy rollbacks and funding cuts that critics say have already begun to decimate the state's clean energy infrastructure.

"There is a concerted effort to drive out clean energy jobs," says state Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Middleton). "Companies specializing in renewable energy are getting creamed right now."

Since taking office in January, Gov. Scott Walker's administration and the GOP-controlled Legislature have, among other things, suspended the wind turbine siting rule, cut millions of dollars from a statewide program that helps bring down costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for companies and local governments, and enacted a law allowing utility companies to satisfy renewable energy requirements by importing hydroelectric power from Canada.

A pending bill would allow utilities to bank renewable energy credits in perpetuity, which would effectively extend the 2015 deadline for adding new sources of renewable energy indefinitely.

Walker's spokesman didn't respond to requests for comment.

Michael Vickerman of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit devoted to clean energy strategies, says the industry's mood "varies from contractor to contractor, but it's pretty grim. We're the only state to drive out its renewable energy businesses."

Vickerman says that many companies have contracts that will sustain them through the end of the year, but with funding and policy support drying up, many will be forced to close their doors.

"We're going to document situations where there are layoffs or where companies relocate to states where their prospects are unchanged," he says. "Walker should be congratulated by governors of other states for pushing business into their greener pastures."

Trains unnecessarily cost Wisconsin taxpayers millions due to Walker's fund rejection

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

From an article by Larry Sandler and Jason Stein:

Wisconsin taxpayers could wind up paying more to keep existing passenger train service from Milwaukee to Chicago than they would have paid to run new high-speed rail service from Milwaukee to Madison, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of state figures.

The Legislature's budget committee voted 12-2 Tuesday to spend $31.6 million in mostly borrowed state money on Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line, costs that could have been paid largely by an $810 million federal grant that would have extended the Hiawatha to Madison.

But Tuesday's vote doesn't cover all the spending that will be needed to keep running the Hiawatha, a growing service that carried nearly 800,000 passengers last year.

State transportation officials have estimated they would need millions more for locomotives, signals and a new maintenance base, even without expanding service beyond the current seven daily round trips.

And, like the spending approved Tuesday, all or most of those new costs would have been covered by the federal grant spurned by Gov. Scott Walker last year. That's because the Milwaukee-to-Madison service would have operated as an extension of the Hiawatha, as part of a larger plan to connect Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwestern destinations with fast, frequent trains.

Taken together, state taxpayers' share of the Hiawatha capital costs that would have been covered by the federal grant could total as much as $99 million, significantly more than the $30 million they would have paid for 20 years of operating costs on the Milwaukee-to-Madison segment, as estimated by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration.

Walker had cited those operating costs as his main reason for opposing the 110-mph extension. Federal money would have paid all of its capital costs. And that doesn't count the other potential benefits that high-speed rail supporters have cited from the Milwaukee-to-Madison line, such as jobs, economic development, expanded tax base and improved freight rail tracks.

Budget committee votes to spend $31.6 million on rail service

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From an article by Jason Stein and Patrick Marley in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Madison - The Legislature's budget committee voted 12-2 Tuesday to spend $31.6 million on the Milwaukee-to-Chicago passenger rail service, costs that could have largely been paid by a federal grant that would have extended passenger rail from Milwaukee to Madison.

The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to shift $33 million within the transportation fund to cover higher than expected winter maintenance costs.

Democrats backed the passenger rail measure. But they pointed to an estimate from the Legislature's nonpartisan budget office that found that at least $22.4 million of the additional costs stem from Republican Gov. Scott Walker's move to cancel an $810 million high-speed rail line connecting Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago.

All Republicans except Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) and Sen. Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan) also backed the measure but countered that the federal government could have still paid for part of the costs and that part of the bills also stem from a questionable contract entered into by Walker's predecessor, Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) called the canceled contract an example of "Walker math" that is costly for the state.

"We had an opportunity to take advantage of federal funding in one of the tightest budgets in years," Taylor said.

National Study Vindicates Wisconsin’s Clean Energy Policies

Monday, July 18, 2011

Immediate release
July 18, 2011

More information
Michael Vickerman
Executive Director

National Study Vindicates Wisconsin’s Clean Energy Policies

Nearly a decade of forward-looking strategies propelled investments in Wisconsin’s clean jobs economy above other Midwest states, according to an economic study issued by The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan public policy organization in Washington, D.C.

Reviewing data gathered between 2003 and 2010, the Brookings analysis pegged the number of clean economy jobs in the state at 76,858, a net increase of nearly 4,000. Measured as a percentage, Wisconsin’s clean economy accounted for 2.7% of all jobs in the state, compared with 2.5% for Iowa, 2.1% for Minnesota, 1.9 % for both Indiana and Michigan, and 1.8% for Illinois. Overall, Wisconsin ranked 8th among all states and the District of Columbia in the relative size of its clean economy.

The report categorizes clean economy jobs as those in energy efficiency and renewable energy; sustainable forestry products; recycling and reuse; waste management and treatment; organic food and farming; energy efficient appliance and building manufacturing; and more.

“Clearly, Wisconsin’s commitment to clean energy has paid dividends, attracting new businesses and creating high-paying jobs that could have easily gone elsewhere,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a statewide organization advocating for public policies and private initiatives that advance renewable energy.

These policies and initiatives include the establishment of Focus on Energy, the region’s first ratepayer-funded energy efficiency and renewable energy program, attractive buyback rates offered by utilities for renewable energy, and innovative incentives to encourage customer installation of renewables.

In addition, Wisconsin’s adoption of a 10% renewable energy standard back in 2006 spurred new utility-scale installations built by skilled tradesmen employed by local contractors. During the study period, the number of wind-related jobs in Wisconsin doubled from less than 450 to 900.

As documented in the Brookings report, the wages for these clean economy jobs run higher than the statewide average ($37,931 vs. $35,906).

“Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s clean economy is in danger of losing a good deal of its steam as a result of policy rollbacks and funding cutbacks in the renewable energy arena,” Vickerman said. “The short-sighted attacks we’ve seen in 2011 could throw the state’s clean economy into reverse next year.”

So far this year, the Legislature has reduced funding for Focus on Energy, suspended the statewide rule regulating the permitting of wind turbines, and weakened the state’s renewable energy standard by allowing utilities to count Canadian hydropower toward their requirements.

“On top of that, We Energies, the state’s largest utility, announced that it will discontinue what had been an effective renewable energy initiative,” Vickerman said. “Among other accomplishments, it was instrumental in enabling Helios USA to build a solar-electric manufacturing facility in Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley.” The plant now employs 50 workers.


RENEW Wisconsin is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. More information on RENEW’s Web site at

Good news: Walker creates clean energy jobs, Bad news: They are in Canada

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A news release issued by Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison):

Madison, WI— In another blow to jobs and clean energy efforts in Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker signed the “Clean Energy Jobs for Canada Act” SB 81 this week that allows a Wisconsin utility to import renewable energy from Canada rather than invest in Wisconsin jobs and clean energy.

“Sadly Governor Walker and the GOP outsource our energy jobs to other countries while Wisconsin citizens will have fewer jobs and higher energy costs,” said Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), member of the Assembly Energy and Utilities Committee.

A Canadian Broadcast Corporation headline read:

“Hydro deal to generate thousands of jobs

A $2-billion deal to export hydroelectric power to Wisconsin will require thousands of workers on several generating stations and transmission lines in Manitoba…”

“Walker and the GOP cut clean energy jobs here and outsource them to foreign countries. Democrats will continue to fight to keep jobs and produce clean energy in the state,” said Rep. Hulsey.

Walker and the GOP recently repealed a Public Service Commission requirement that would increase Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable resources after GOP PSC Chair Phil Montgomery issued a press release touting the benefits of the Focus on Energy clean energy program saving Wisconsinites $380 million in 2010 alone. Walker and the GOP also want to create some of the strictest wind energy rules in the nation threatening more than 1,000 wind energy jobs, according to Renew Wisconsin,

Wisconsin’s Widening War on Renewable Energy

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dramatic Slowdown in Market Activity Anticipated
By Michael Vickerman
July 11, 2011

What started out as an opening salvo from the Walker Administration to shackle large-scale wind projects has in six months turned into a systematic campaign to dismantle the state policies that support renewable energy development. Joining the executive and legislative branches in pursuing policy rollbacks and/or funding cutbacks against renewables are various utilities and, surprisingly, Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s ratepayer-funded energy efficiency and renewable programs.

Since January 1st, Wisconsin has seen a series of assaults against utility-scale projects and smaller renewable systems serving both residences and businesses. These include the following actions:
  • The Legislature suspended PSC 128, the statewide rule developed by the Public Service Commission last year in response to a law passed by the Legislature in 2009 ordering the agency to establish uniform standards for permitting wind energy systems. Since the March 1 suspension vote, wind development in Wisconsin has slowed to a standstill.
  • The Legislature adopted SB 81, a bill that RENEW Wisconsin describes as the “Outsource Renewable Energy to Canada Act.” SB 81 allows Wisconsin utilities to meet their renewable energy requirements beginning in 2015 with electricity generated from large hydropower plants in other states and Canada. By allowing Wisconsin utilities to become even more dependent on energy imports than they are today, SB 81 turns Wisconsin’s Renewable Energy Standard on its head. Importing large-scale hydropower exports the very dollars that could have been used to harness Wisconsin’s renewable energy resources. 
  • We Energies, the state’s largest electric utility, abruptly decided in May to walk away from an agreement with RENEW to dedicate $60 million over a 10-year period in support of renewable energy development in its territory. The decision came in the sixth year of this program. We Energies plans to reallocate the unspent dollars (totaling about $27 million) to general operations. 
  • Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) instituted in April a new net energy policy designed to discourage new customer-sited renewable energy systems. Until recently WPS had been paying its customers the full retail rate for electricity that flows back on the wires, which is now about 12 cents/kWh. But under the new rate, WPS only pays three cents/kWh for electricity exported to the grid. Moreover, the utility calculates the net each month, which penalizes customers whose loads vary significantly depending on seasonal factors. Right now, the new policy only covers systems installed after March 2011, but WPS has said that it plans to apply that rate to older systems effective January 2013.
  • In its deliberations on the biennial state budget passed in June, the Legislature appended a rider to tie Focus on Energy’s annual budget to a percentage (1.2% of gross utility revenues). This action will mean a cut of $20 million in the program’s 2012 budget relative to this year’s allocation of $120 million. The Focus on Energy program provides grants and cash-back awards supporting customer investments in solar electric, solar thermal systems, small wind, biogas and biomass energy systems. 
  • Last, but certainly not least, as of July 1, Focus on Energy stopped accepting applications for business program incentives to help customers install renewable energy systems. These incentives, which average about $7 million per year, had been available since 2002 to businesses, farms, schools, local governments and other nonprofit customers. It is not clear when these incentives will be resumed and in what quantity. 

Let's get new RTA bill done

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

From an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal:

The same Republicans who just killed the Dane County Regional Transit Authority say they're willing to allow RTAs in Wisconsin if they're more consistent and accountable.

OK, then let's get moving on just such a bill.

Dane County needs an RTA to encourage regional cooperation on transportation planning to avoid gridlock.

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, and Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, played key roles during the recent state budget process in nixing the legal status of several RTAs including Dane County's.

Yet they told the State Journal editorial board recently that they'll encourage more study and a compromise bill that can be approved as early as next year or by 2013.

We intend to hold them to that pledge.

Funding Hiatus Darkens Outlook for In-State Renewables

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Immediate release
July 5, 2011

More information
Michael Vickerman
Executive Director

Funding Hiatus Darkens Outlook for In-State Renewables

For the first time in its 11-year history, Focus on Energy is no longer accepting applications from Wisconsin businesses and nonprofit entities seeking to install renewable energy systems. This new policy took effect July 1.

According to Focus on Energy officials, this suspension of financial incentives is necessary to balance demand for renewable energy systems with available funds. In 2009, Focus on Energy allocated approximately $10 million to support customer-sited renewable energy systems. More than half of that allocation went to businesses, farmers, local governments, schools, and nonprofit organizations throughout the state.

“We recognize that Focus on Energy officials have a responsibility to ensure that outflows don’t exceed revenues. However, this suspension could not have occurred at a worse time for Wisconsin’s renewable energy contractors,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin.

“Unfortunately, this move coincides with Milwaukee-based We Energies’ decision to walk away from an agreement with RENEW Wisconsin to commit $60 million over a 10-year period to develop renewable energy within its territory,” Vickerman said. ‘We Energies disclosed its unilateral action in May, barely more than halfway into honoring its commitment.”

“Given the adverse environment for renewable energy right now in Wisconsin, we hope that the interruption amounts to nothing more than a brief timeout,” said Vickerman.

“Unless funding is restored quickly, 2012 will turn out to be a very lean year for contractors and installers,” Vickerman warned.

As of this moment, the renewable energy marketplace is bristling with new installations. Installations to be completed this summer with incentives from Focus on Energy include:
• Two small wind turbines serving a Monroe County cranberry grower;
• A solar hot water system serving a new apartment building next to the Hilldale shopping complex in Madison;
• Side-by-side solar hot water and electric installations atop a new classroom building at the UW-Oshkosh;
• An engine generator fed with biogas derived from the City of Appleton’s wastewater treatment plant.

However, without a fresh supply of Focus-funded projects, Wisconsin’s renewable energy development pipeline will slow to a trickle, forcing contractors and installers to either seek work in other states or lay off employees.

Wisconsin has more than 2,500 customer-sited renewable energy installations, the vast majority of which received either financial incentives or facilitation services from Focus on Energy. In total, these installations have a generating capacity of about 20 megawatts.


Good roads are the backbone of any economy

Friday, July 01, 2011

An editorial in the La Crosse Tribune illustrates much of the current thinking about transportation, with no consideration of environmental issues or concern for future oil supplies:

There are lots of reasons why transportation is a crucial part of Wisconsin’s economy – 6.5 billion of them. That’s the dollars that are in the transportation budget over the next two years.

Here are some positive points about the transportation budget:
  • The raid on the transportation fund, which resulted in the siphoning of $1.3 billion to pay for other state programs under former Gov. Jim Doyle — is over. That money has been paid back.
  • Bonding for major projects continues but at a lower level. Borrowing has declined by $155 million.
  • There is no increase in gas taxes or vehicle registration fees.
  • More than $35 million in sales tax revenue will be put into the transportation fund, which represents 7.5 percent of the revenue from sales of vehicles and vehicle parts.
  • The $2.8 billion of spending in the state highway improvement program is the same as the previous budget. 
Transportation funding has been a challenge since the Legislature in 2005 stopped the annual gas tax increase. With more fuel-efficient cars and declining registration fees, many road projects were on the cut list because of declining revenue.

The budget also establishes the Transportation Finance and Policy Study Commission, which will investigate where future transportation funds should come from. We need some creative revenue options to keep our transportation system strong, unless we like the idea of toll roads, bad highways or failing bridges.

Good roads are the backbone of any economy, particularly a state like Wisconsin that relies heavily on transportation to support its manufacturing and agricultural base. The state has more than 112,000 miles of public roadway, which includes 11,753 miles (750 miles of interstate and 11,010 miles of state or U.S.-marked highways) in the State Trunk Highway System.