An Acela train speeding past BWI.The American rail system: going nowhere fast?Photo: Tim Gilliam“Is it just me, or is it hard to argue against writing the next chapter in American innovation?”

That was U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Twitter yesterday. He was talking about an article in the The New York Times on Republican gubernatorial candidates in several states who have vowed to reject federal stimulus funds for passenger rail projects.

According to the Times piece, candidates from California to Florida are lining up to say no to federal funding, and to the high-speed inter-city rail network that’s been a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s transportation policy:

In Wisconsin, which got more than $810 million in federal stimulus money to build a train line between Milwaukee and Madison, Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, has made his opposition to the project central to his campaign.

Mr. Walker, who worries that the state could be required to spend $7 million to $10 million a year to operate the trains once the line is built, started a Web site, NoTrain.com, and has run a television advertisement in which he calls the rail project a boondoggle. “I’m Scott Walker,” he says in the advertisement, “and if I’m elected as your next governor, we’ll stop this train.”

It’s not just Walker. As the Times reports, John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Scott in Florida, and Meg Whitman in California are all declaring their intentions to say no to hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars for rail — citing concerns over future costs to their states as well as skepticism about rail in general.

The Times notes that many of the candidates in question would be happy to see the money go to roads, although the law does not allow that.

The rail issue appears to be emerging as another political football for Republicans determined to sink any ambitious proposal the Obama administration comes up with.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, another Republican who has come out against rail in recent weeks, embodies the political gamesmanship over the rail question. When he was in office, Thompson worked to craft the proposal for a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. Now he’s saying that the project shouldn’t go forward.

Thompson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that a shift in the political winds will allow money slated for rail to go to roads, and that rail will have to wait until economic times are better:

Thompson said Republicans would take over Congress this fall and would be likely to let Wisconsin use the $810 million for highways instead of rail …

Thompson said he supported the line in the past because he had invested in highways. But now, roads need to be repaired before the rail line is built, he said.

“Before you start doing something, you better take care of what you have that’s going to make Wisconsin strong — that’s building highways, that’s No. 1,” he said.

“When I was governor, I had already built the infrastructure. I had put the money there. And I was supportive of high-speed trains because I believe high-speed trains has a place. But at this day and time and the circumstances we have right now, we can’t afford it.”

In a blog post yesterday, LaHood expressed his frustration at the political stance being taken by Walker, Kasich, and their ilk:

We’re talking about nothing short of transforming transportation much the same way the interstate highway system did under President Eisenhower. Can you imagine if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said, “No, thanks — we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere?”

The fact is that — as with much of the Recovery Act — I keep hearing objections being expressed in the media while at the same time my office phone is ringing off the hook with calls from elected officials of both parties competing feverishly for a rail corridor in their state! …

If you think the United States can afford not to compete with the European and Asian nations who have embraced high-speed rail and other innovative infrastructure, I urge you to read “Investing in our Economic Future,” by Dr. T. Peter Ruane, or “Well Within Reach: America’s New Transportation Agenda,” by the David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference. Both of these reports tell the same story: We cannot delay mustering the courage to build a 21st century foundation for our 21st century economy.

LaHood is himself a Republican, a 14-year veteran of the House of Representatives, famed for his ability to get along with the folks on both sides of the aisle. He’s no starry-eyed idealist. Hell, he’s from Illinois. Still, you can sense that even this seasoned pol is amazed by the state of things this election season.