Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

High-Speed Train Derailed in Wisconsin

Dateline: 10:46 am December 15, 2010 Filed under:

Tell me this, how many people enjoy changing planes at O’Hare? It was announced the other day that Wisconsin is losing their stimulus funding to create rail service from Madison to Milwaukee, something the incoming governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, was opposed to. He cites the cost to the state for maintaining the service, and questions who will ride between the two cities.

Taken in that context, Mr. Walker is probably right – there will be a cost borne to the state for continued service, and perhaps there will be fewer riders between Madison and Milwaukee than the existing service between Milwaukee and Chicago. However, this debate has very little to do with a train between Madison and Milwaukee. Rather, it is about connecting Madison to other midwestern cities via high-quality rail service.

Don’t forget Madison and Milwaukee are stops between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Last time I checked, there were more than 40 flights between Minneapolis and Chicago. At 100 seats per plane and 75% load factors, that is 3,000 people per day making that trip. Ten high-speed train trips per day in trains with capacity of up to 400 could nearly offset that demand. Even replacing half of those flights would make an impact. Multiply that by all the flights to Chicago from cities in the Midwest high-speed rail network, like St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, etc. and many of the cities in between, and you have significantly reduced demand on congested O’Hare and Midway, not not mention other cities’ airports. If around half of the flights in to O’Hare from from nearby Midwestern cities, you could reduce flights by nearly 10% at O’Hare, which currently handles well over 2,000 per day.

Chicago is in the midst of a $15 billion upgrade to O’Hare airport, including the taking of land and homes in a neighboring municipality. Upgrading existing rail tracks to provide 110 mile-per-hour service from Chicago to St. Louis, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Detroit would cost $12 billion, according to a 2009 NPR story. So you tell me what is more cost effective, particularly if passenger rail improvements can relieve pressure at Chicago’s airports?

The conveniences of train travel are strong arguments as well. I was recently diverted to Indianapolis on my way to Midway – lightning or snow can cripple air travel, no matter the season, whereas train travel is far less impacted by weather. Trains can be more far more energy efficient than automobiles and aircraft, and generally depart from and arrive in walkable employment centers, which reduces energy consumption for more passengers than a distant airport. Train travel also does not currently require the time-consuming and tiring security check and pat-downs of the air transport system. You can arrive much closer to your departure time, sit in a more comfortable, spacious seat, use electronic gadgets the entire time (unless you are in a quiet car – no cellphones there), get up and walk around when you like. All this can amount to a much more pleasant trip. Our interstates are also increasingly congested and in disrepair, bolstering the argument for a quality rail option.

As for economic development, the typical line given by rail supporters is the jobs created by the contruction of the rail network. While this is true, and construction jobs are important, I believe it is far more important to consider the economic benefit of linking population and employment centers by appropriate transportation. Let’s take Madison and its huge University (Go Badgers!) and state capitol, both located near and the proposed downtown rail station. Connecting that huge employment generator, not to mention all the private sector spinoff generated by research at the University, by a convenient third means of transportation is, in my mind, a very sensible idea. It isn’t just connecting to Milwaukee, but eventually to Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis…do I need to go through the list again?

And for those opposed to the public “subsidy” required for the rail operation, did I mention the $15 billion being spent on O’Hare? Oh yes, I did. And please look up the total amount your state spends each year on road maintenance. The proposed public cost to help operate an energy-efficient and weather-resistant form of transportation between two major employment and population centers (Madison and Milwaukee) is a mere pittance compared to the public cost of road and air travel – a better balance between the three is required.

It is a shame that we have not done a better job of selling rail as a critical piece of our transportation network, and and absolute travesty that the election of one governor can affect the future of they system. Upgrades to the freight railway along the National Gateway Corridor include a coalition of support from governors, senators, congresspersons, state and local elected officials and broad swath of the private sector who will benefit. One election will not turn the tide of that effort; we need a stronger coalition for Midwest passenger rail.

Passenger rail travel is not just neat, it should be an integral part of a well-balanced transportation network in this country, particularly for trips of less than 500 miles. Come on Wisconsin, we need you back at the table on this one. I’m ready to book that trip to Madison!

1 Comment

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