MILWAUKEE — Labor leaders and politicians rallied Monday in support of a high-speed rail project, mocking Wisconsin Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker's efforts to scuttle the deal by refusing the $810 million in federal stimulus funding.
Activists gathered at the Milwaukee plant of train maker Talgo Inc. and called on Walker to drop his opposition of the project. The area needs the jobs, they said, and about a dozen speakers argued that an improved train system would stimulate local commerce and help the environment.
Phil Neuenfeldt, the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO labor group, said the goal was to remind Walker that the project would put people to work at livable wages.
"The main point is, this area as well as the whole state needs jobs," he said. "If the rail project doesn't go forward those jobs will go elsewhere. We can't afford to see that happen."
The high-speed rail line, which would carry passengers between Madison and Milwaukee, was expected to create about 125 jobs at Talgo, along with hundreds of other ancillary positions. Talgo officials have said they won't stay in Wisconsin beyond 2012 if the state bails on its commitment to the project.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has already extended the red carpet to Talgo, saying his administration would do whatever it could to lure the train maker to his state. Officials in Illinois and New York have also said they'd gladly accept whatever federal funds are turned down by Wisconsin and other states.
Those statements led the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to put up a billboard on the freeway near Walker's Milwaukee-area home mocking him for his opposition.
The billboard has a picture of the governor-elect along with the lines, "Dear Scott Walker, Thanks for the money & jobs! Love, Illinois."
Mike Tate, the state party's chairman, said he hoped Walker will see the billboard on his drives home from Madison.
"Scott Walker claimed he would create jobs but apparently he wants to start his administration by killing Wisconsin jobs," Tate said.
Walker was in San Diego on Monday for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. His spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment, although Walker's office did release a letter from three unions arguing that the federal funds earmarked for the high-speed rail would be better spent on fixing crumbling infrastructure.
Walker has said he opposes the project because the state could get stuck paying the maintenance costs. He wants to use the money for other purposes or give it back.
"Gov.-elect Scott Walker remains focused on fixing Wisconsin's existing infrastructure, namely our state's crumbling roads and bridges," spokesman John Hiller said in a statement.
Walker received plenty of support from road builders during the recent gubernatorial race, according to a report released Monday by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association gave $85,000 to Walker, compared to $11,250 to his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Walker's opposition didn't sit well with the 150 to 200 people who attended the Milwaukee rally. The Rev. Ken Wheeler of the nearby Cross Lutheran Church said the project would bring jobs to an economically depressed part of the city and give hope to the many young black men looking for work.
"Don't just do what is expedient. Do what is right. Do what is just," he said. "Invest your moral and political chips, for once Mr. Walker, on the side of the workers, on the side of the poor."