My night with the train-haters

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Friday, August 20, 2010

How come no one else wants a train station in my backyard?
By Matt Van Hattem, senior editor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I got to meet some of the people Dan Machalaba writes about in his story “What to do about NIMBYs” in the September 2010 issue of Trains Magazine.
 
Boy, was it an eye-opener.
 
This year, Wisconsin got $823 million in federal Recovery Act money to, among other things, extend Amtrak’s Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service trains 85 miles west to Madison, the state capital.
 
Sounds great, right?
 
Well actually, many people in this state could not be angrier about this train. You’d think the new train was going to hurl personal insults at them every time it passed by.
 
So far, the project is moving forward, which is why I ventured to a meeting in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, not far from our offices, where the state was holding a public meeting on its plan to put a station in the town.
 
That’s where I came face-to-face with the train-haters.
 
At times, the tension in the meeting room was palpable. Arguments broke out among audience members. Emotions ran high.
 
To hear the train-haters tell it, this is the worst thing to happen to Wisconsin since Joe McCarthy and Jeffrey Dahmer. The train’s operating subsidies will drain the state treasury and mortgage their children’s future. The station’s maintenance costs will raise property taxes and hijack the municipal budget. The quiet streets and neighborhoods would be shattered by train whistles and congestion.
 
When the state transportation folks showed ridership figures for the proposed station, the audience scoffed, declaring no one would ride it. Then two seconds later, they harangued against all of the auto traffic that would result from people driving to and from the station. (Wait a minute — if no one is riding the train, where would the congestion come from…?)
 
They were adamant that a train would ruin their peaceful community, and they were furious about subsidizing train riders who ought to be driving their own cars at their own expense. And by the way, the highways are falling apart, and this train money would be better spent repairing the roads anyway...
 
Global warming? That’s a myth, said more than one person at the meeting. What about access to jobs or economic development near stations or reduced highway congestion? Doesn’t matter. Cutting spending was more important.
 
The state transportation folks didn’t have many comforting answers. They listened respectfully — I admired their diplomacy, in fact. They answered questions when they could, but the answers were mainly confined to the “how” of the project, whereas most people in the room wanted to know “why.” But that wasn’t part of the dialogue.
 
And frankly, most people weren’t ready to hear the answer. Emotions and ideology ruled the evening; rational discourse was in short supply.
 
What was going on?
 
My sense is, people are frustrated. The economy has hit us hard. We’re all struggling. And big changes bring more unknowns.
 
“There are so many people now in economic hard times, and you just keep asking, ‘give us some more, give us some more,’” said one impassioned opponent.
 
Saying “no” to the train seems to be the one tangible thing people could do to take back control.
 
Some even admitted they loved riding trains in Europe, but were adamantly opposed to bringing that kind of a system to America, or at least to their piece of the country.
 
One person asked the 200 or so people in the room how many were against the train. Four out of five hands went up.
 
Oddly, when the same person asked how many people would ride the train, between a third and half the room raised their hands.
 
“Engineers have a saying: ‘you don’t build a bridge based on the number of people swimming across the river,’” said a friend of mine who practices transportation law, when I told him about my experience. “Far more people will use this train, they just don’t believe yet that they will use it.”
 
I voiced my support for the train with a town alderman, who told me she was vehemently anti-rail. I told her that I worked nearby and that I wanted transportation alternatives because of the high gas prices.
 
“What kind of car do you drive,” she asked me.
 
“A Ford Explorer,” I said.
 
She snorted. “Well, you can just buy a Prius.”
 
It reminded me of Southern Pacific president Ben Biaggini, who wanted to buy every train rider a new car so he could kill his commute trains.
 
In an exhibit room, a slightly different perspective emerged. There were maps spread out on tables, and people were encouraged to write comments on yellow sticky notes and place them on the map.
 
Surprisingly, the comments ran about 50/50 pro and con. But the pro-rail folks either chose not to verbally speak up, or failed to get a word in edgewise.
 
More than one co-worker said to me later, “if they hate the train so much, then fine, let it blow right on through and we’ll give them a big salute as we’re blasting by. Let them lose out.”
 
But that won’t help people in the area. It won’t encourage ridership. I don’t want a train built on spite.
 
I want a train built on possibilities, on hope.
 
So now the town of Brookfield, Wis., must vote on whether or not to allow the train station to be built.
 
I have no idea whether I’ll see a train station in Trains Magazine’s backyard. Maybe the city leaders will just say no, presuming to follow the will of the people.
 
And as much as I’d love to turn the tables and say “I don’t want train-haters in *my* backyard,” the fact is, they’re out there. They’re my neighbors.
 
And they’re mad.

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