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By James B. Nelson November 23, 2010

Tom Petri heads in opposite direction on high-speed rail project

Over 31 years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, a Republican from Fond du Lac, has kept a pretty low profile on controversial issues.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see his name on the bottom of a Nov. 17, 2010 statement that called the Madison-Milwaukee high speed rail link a "boondoggle" and declared:

"This high speed rail project is a bad investment for taxpayers and our state simply cannot afford it."  

Especially since Petri’s name was on an earlier letter, dated Aug. 10, 2009, about the high-speed rail effort, which said in part:

"This investment will strengthen the surrounding Midwest economies through new rail and construction jobs, while also increasing development and connectivity from rural to urban areas."

What happened in those intervening 15 months?

Well, after Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle spent years working with other Midwestern states on plans for high-speed rail, the Milwaukee-Madison link was one of 13 projects selected to receive federal funding -- $810 million -- in January 2010.

Then Republican Scott Walker made stopping the train a central part of this gubernatorial campaign, as did Republican candidates in Ohio and Florida. Now, Walker says Congress should allow the state to use the $810 million on roads -- though many, including Petri, say that’s unlikely. Other states -- New York, North Carolina, California and, of course, Illinois -- are clamoring for the money Wisconsin is about to take a pass on.

And, the state’s Republican members of Congress are, well, circling the wagons around Walker.

Thus, the November statement from Petri and U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls and Paul Ryan of Janesville. It read:

"We support Governor-elect Walker's effort to put the brakes on the High Speed Rail budget boondoggle, which is why we introduced legislation, today, that would give states the ability to return federal funds obligated to high-speed rail projects, and instead use this money to reduce our nation’s $1.6 trillion deficit and $13.8 trillion debt."

So, it’s time again to roll out the Flip-O-Meter.

Remember, we’re not passing judgment on whether the shift was good policy or even good politics. The Flip-O-Meter measures only how much an elected official’s position has changed.

Petri’s position was pretty clear in that first letter, in which he joined with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and announced the creation of a congressional caucus to support high speed rail, including the network that would include the Milwaukee-Madison link.

That was the letter about a strengthened economy and all that rural-urban connectivity.

In many ways, the letter was in line with the views of Thompson, who was a strong backer of the high-speed network as governor and chairman of the Amtrak board. In September, Thompson did his own shift and said the state instead should ask that the money go to highways.

"I was supportive of high speed trains because I believe high-speed trains has a place," Thompson said at the time. "But at this day and time and the circumstances we have right now, we can't afford it."

Petri, a long-time member of the House Transportation Committee, said he was merely heeding the wishes of state leaders, first Thompson and then Doyle.

"My position was to make the strongest case I could for Wisconsin to have high speed rail," Petri told PolitiFact Wisconsin. "That was successful."

So, what happened since?

Petri said Walker’s election indicates that sentiment has turned away from the train. And if the train is stopped here, he wants the money to go to reduce the federal deficit -- not another state’s rail project.

But how do you square a statement about the project's benefits with one declaring it a "boondoggle"?

Asked about the stark difference in the two letters bearing his boss’ signature, spokesman Niel Wright said Petri didn’t write the recent letter -- it came from Sensenbrenner’s office.

"Sensenbrenner is hotter on this and more determined on this than Mr. Petri," Wright said.

Indeed, in his interview with us, Petri sounded remarkably open to the need for a rail connection from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago.

"It probably should be considered at some point," especially as Madison continues to grow, he said.

Petri also noted that the train was a "pet project" of President Barack Obama -- and that it was highly unlikely that the president would sign legislation directing the money for road work or deficit reduction. He said Wisconsin’s money could well wind up going to another state.

"If that’s the choice," Petri said, "I’d say just go ahead with it."

If so, the Flip-O-Meter will be back for the backflip.

For now, we’ll say Petri has gone from a full-blown advocate for the high speed rail project to signing onto a statement that condemned the project. And that’s a Full Flop.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Letter from U.S. Reps. Tom Petri and Jim Oberstar, Aug. 10, 2009

Press release on high-speed rail, U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan, Tom Petri, Nov. 17, 2010

Interview, Neil Wright, spokesman, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), Nov. 19, 2010

Interview, Tom Petri, Nov. 22, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives

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Tom Petri heads in opposite direction on high-speed rail project

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