Note to critics: Roads, freeways subsidized, too

Monday, March 08, 2010

From an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

But costs and stops in fast rail should be discussed as part of the gubernatorial and legislative races this year. Fast rail can work for Wisconsin if done right.

Building a fast rail line to connect Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison and, eventually, to Minnesota's Twin Cities could pay off for business travelers and economic development. It could be a boon for the states and communities along the line. It's a proposal that could have everyone winning when it is fully completed, and if it's done right.

Critics need to remember that Milwaukee to Madison is one link in building a fast rail network in the Midwest. To reach its full potential, that network needs to be fully completed. The Milwaukee-Madison connection has intrinsic value, but it will have more value as part of a route that eventually links Chicago to the Twin Cities and points in between. Building a fast rail network has become a national priority, and it will be done in stages, just as the freeway system was built in stages.

A fast rail network isn't the only answer to transportation challenges, but it can be an important part of a balanced transportation picture that includes, air travel, freeways, mass transit on buses and trains. That's especially important in Snowbelt states, where winter storms can shut down airports and roads but rail can often keep running.

Critics - many of whom support expanding rail - have raised two legitimate concerns: One is how the Milwaukee-Madison line will be funded once the line is up and running; the other involves an effective Madison connection. State officials need to address both issues, and voters need to ask candidates in this year's elections for governor and the state Legislature for serious answers.

In January, the federal government awarded the state $810 million in federal stimulus money to build a passenger rail line between the two cities as an extension of the Hiawatha. Service on the Milwaukee-Madison route would start with six round trips at 79 mph in 2013, increasing to 110 mph in 2015. Another $12 million in federal cash would be used to upgrade the Milwaukee-Chicago line.

With approval last month from the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, state officials expect to complete final engineering and start construction by the end of this year, said Chris Klein, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi.

It has been estimated that state support for operating the Milwaukee-Madison line will be $7.5 million in 2013, plus $8.1 million for the Milwaukee-Chicago leg, with the combined annual total growing from $15.6 million to $28 million by 2022.

The line already has resulted in the announcement of new jobs through the state's contract with Spanish train manufacturer Talgo, which will be making trains in Milwaukee. That development will in turn create other jobs, all of which will be a boost to the state's economy.

The line is also expected to spur growth at stops along the route. That growth could be a source of funding for operational expenses. That potential needs to be more fully explored. But it also should be remembered that roads, too, are taxpayer-funded - freeways through the gasoline tax and other driver fees and city streets through other sources. Perhaps officials can find a balance for funding freeways and rail; if drivers benefit from improved rail service that yields less congestion, maybe a portion of the transportation fund should be set aside for rail.

But those officials also need to fix the Madison problem. As currently planned, the train would stop at the Dane County Regional Airport, far from anywhere most people going to Madison want to go. Most people going to Madison generally want to go to the downtown area, and, specifically, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Capitol.

If the train takes them to the airport and they have to wait for a connecting bus, shuttle van or light rail car to take them into town, they're probably not going to take that train. Taking their own cars or buses that already stop at the university and near the Capitol would make more sense.

The issue has raised hackles among both proponents and opponents of rail. Proponents talk about the importance of providing what is called a single-seat ride, the ability to take the train and get off at or within reasonable walking distance of one's destination.

If travelers have to switch to a bus or taxicab, "they just won't do that," said Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman, a longtime passenger rail supporter who believes the Madison station should be built downtown. He's right - if travelers have to wait for any length of time.

That's why planners have to consider reasonable alternatives, such as the stop closer to downtown that has been proposed by urban planner Barry Gore. Alternatively, if the stop remains at the airport - which planners favor because it provides faster service to the Twin Cities - they have to find a quick connection from there to downtown, a connection that would not require passengers to wait long. If they could get off and in short order step onto a fast connection to downtown, they still might take the train.