By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
President Barack Obama talks endlessly of the need to invest in America’s infrastructure, but when American Transmission Company proposed to do just that, state Rep. Fred Clark, a fellow Democrat, went nuts.
ATC proposes updating the electric power grid and connect wind turbines in the Dakotas, through Minnesota to Wisconsin and parts east. Key to the initiative is the roughly 150-mile Badger-Coulee line, part of a series of transmission lines that would run across northwestern Wisconsin atop 150-foot tall towers. If approved by the Public Service Commission, ATC will have the line working by 2018.
It’s got everything the president says he loves — green energy, construction jobs and rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
So what is about the Badger-Coulee line that got Clark riled enough to author a column in his local newspaper, the Baraboo News Republic? Clark believes the line is unneeded and PSC approval should be put off. He says Wisconsin already has enough power for its needs and shouldn’t serve as a ferry for such cities as Chicago and Cincinnati.
Clark raised no similar objections in December 2010 when he discovered Gov. Scott Walker would not pursue construction of an $810 million high-speed rail line from Madison to Milwaukee.
“Madison to Milwaukee was only the first step in a regional system that would have linked Chicago and Minneapolis,” Clark’s office wrote back then, “and could have provided rapid, reliable passenger service to Wisconsin communities such as La Crosse, Eau Claire, and Wisconsin Dells – which is a family travel destination for more than 3 million visitors each year.”
How does Clark account for his contradictory reactions?
“Passenger rail helps meet an important need for Wisconsin travelers and commuters, and provides clear benefit,” he told us. “We should insure that any new transmission lines provide comparable benefits before they are approved.”
Benefits are subjective, of course. Critics opposed the high-speed rail line on the basis of its poor planning and expense. Instead of running straight from Milwaukee to Madison, planners designed it around marketing, running the line through communities to create rail stations — and political support — along the way. It would never have approached anything like “high-speed” except as measured against the bicycle or horse, maybe: studies showed car travel would have been the faster choice for the 90-mile journey.
Then there was the cost. The $810 million promised by the federal government was only a down payment; additional costs for operating the line would be picked up by Wisconsin taxpayers. As California is showing the rest of the country, such initiatives tend only to lead to publicly financed boondoggles.
By contrast, we don’t have to guess at the benefits of the electric transmission line: a private company is putting ups its own cash to back its assessment that the lines offer such great benefits that ATC will make a profit while moving power safely from one point to another.
That standard — let’s call it “the profit motive” — isn’t the only standard, but it may be the best way to determine whether a project offers benefits.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.