Suddenly, Wisconsin wants trains?

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wisconsin's state capitol rises above weedy tracks that once carried Chicago & North Western streamliners from the Windy City into Madison, Wis. Matt Van Hattem photo

You'd think the spring 2011 meeting of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers would be a depressing affair. After all, the state's newly elected governor just turned away nearly $1 billion in federal grants to restore passenger service between Milwaukee and Madison, Wis.

But no. The 40 or so folks who gathered in Madison were anything but despondent. Instead, I saw curiosity and hope, tinged with a little righteous anger.

This was just days before Gov. Scott Walker announced he would apply for at least $150 million in high speed money to improve the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service trains run by Amtrak.

That pronouncement has riled my fellow blogger, Fred Frailey, as he wrote here.

But I'm elated. I just hope the governor's previous anti-rail rhetoric hasn't blown his chances.

(For the record, Walker had always supported maintaining the state's financial support of the Hiawatha, but that was buried in the noise of his vehement opposition of extending the service to Madison.)

"We did not do a good a job selling the idea," admits assemblyman Brett Hulsey, who authored the state resolution to spend the first $100 million on the Madison train. Hulsey was one of the featured speakers at the passenger association's meeting.

He identified four reasons the train died - none of which had to do with the project itself, but rather with the failure to amass enough political and public support.

1. The term "high speed rail' scared people off. "We had a saying at the Sierra Club: trains reign but rails fail'," Hulsey says. "Rail brings to mind being stuck at a grade crossing, while trains bring to mind going to Grandma's house."

2. Freight rail benefits were understated. Hulsey believes the passenger train would have gotten more political support if Walker and other officials had taken the time to learn how the project would have improved freight transportation, and by extension, the state's manufacturing base. Three-quarters of the project's money would have gone to upgrading a 10-mph freight line that has potential rail freight shippers along it. 

Now, Hulsey is pushing the state to fund more freight rail improvements, something that he says has "really intrigued the Republican legislature."

3. Nobody knows what a passenger train is anymore. "Most people have not had train experience," he says. "A whole generation has lost it." He's trying to get the state to come up with $80,000 to $100,000 in insurance money to run football specials to University of Wisconsin Badger games in Madison. "It's a small step," he says, but a start for boosting the train culture.

4. Too much focus on costs and not enough on transportation benefits. A huge political sore spot was the $7.5 million or so a year the Madison train would have required in state funding - about half a percent of Wisconsin's transportation budget. 

Meanwhile, the city of Watertown, a planned stop on the line, lost $20 million to $25 million of new development around the station area once the project fizzled, said mayor Ron Krueger, another presenter. Plus a freight siding that the state paid half a million to put in will remain unused because that 10-mph rail line won't be improved.

"Wisconsin almost missed out on the Interstate highway system," Hulsey said, invoking history. "Wisconsin was late to the dance because we didn't want to pay for maintenance." 

Now those highways are filling up and the state is undertaking several billion-dollar expansion projects, a move Hulsey says will only buy three to five years of congestion relief.

"Building a new highway to solve traffic problems is like buying bigger pants to solve a weight problem," he says.

In the weeks since the passenger funding went away, still more developments have emerged that make the train a good idea, not the least of which has been the recent spike in gas prices.

Plus, the state is now on the hook to pay for work that would have been covered by the high speed rail grant, including a federally mandated renovation of the Milwaukee trains station to make its platforms ADA-compliant. Walker's new high speed rail application would put the funding burden back on Washington.

Two planning groups, one national (America 2050) and one regional (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce), just released studies urging improvements to the Hiawatha Service for the economic benefits that will accrue and its ridership potential (which America 2050 ranked in the top 1 percent out of 7,780 corridors nationwide).

Meanwhile - in the biggest irony of all - Wisconsin is still spending money on high speed rail outside the Chicago-Milwaukee route. The state is funding part of a federally required study going on in Minnesota to examine high speed rail options linking Minneapolis-St. Paul with Chicago, regardless of whether the line goes through Wisconsin or not.

So while the Milwaukee-Madison passenger train may have died, all of the reasons that made it a good idea continue gaining strength.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.