Friday, March 17, 2006

Milwaukee-to-Madison Round-Trip

Made that boring drive back and forth again today.

Having lived in either Madison or Milwaukee for nearly 40 years, I can say without fear of contradiction that failing to re-open passenger rail between both cities has been a huge and continuing failure by state, regional and local planners.

It is part of a pattern that keeps modern rail transportation opportunties away from southeastern Wisconsin.

Several years ago, WisDOT estimated that the railbed between the two cities could be brought up to passenger rail standards for $33 million. Compared to many other public investments, $33 million was a bargain.

But the planning was buried by highway-building special interests and the legislators they have in their deep pockets, so the two major cities in the state, their business communities, universities and tourists are still without this basic tool.

Except for AMTRAK's Empire Builder that runs through the area without stopping between Milwaukee and Columbus, the area between Madison and Milwaukee is a passenger-rail free zone.

To narrow-minded talk radio hosts and their fearful suburban constituencies: congratulations on helping keep the region economically stifled.

The opposition to rail service is centered west of Milwaukee in Waukesha - - even to rail transit that would primarily serve the City of Milwaukee.

That is why 'regional cooperation' is now so slow to materialize - - Waukesha's having blocked light rail within the city and county of Milwaukee - - and why so many people and policy-makers in Milwaukee are leery of working with Waukesha interests when it comes to water supplies and other matters.

Waukesha's opposition was led by the soon-to-be-gone Scott Jensen - - a stance that was politically gratuitous and short-sighted at the time and now for several reasons looks completely idiotic.

Just wait until the Zoo Interchange and I-94 through Waukesha County are torn up during years of planned expansion and reconstruction. People out there will be screaming for transit. They'll demand options.

But folks...that train left the station.

And the higher that gasoline prices climb (does anyone think that the trend will be anything other than up-up-up?), the more that light rail would be attractive, especially as bedroom community housing is being built on every available acre of farm land 30 and 40 miles west of downtown Milwaukee.

High-end housing is sprouting at Pabst Farms near Oconomowoc off I-94, but when gasoline hits $3.50 a gallon, are those home-owning commuters going to relish filling up the Yukon with $100 worth of fuel? There aren't even bus routes out there, let alone connector services to light, or so-called heavy/commuter rail.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Light rail remains an easy rhetorical target for talk radio jocks even though it is a growing success in Minneapolis and St. Louis, and cities from San Diego to Denver. Smaller communities, like Kansas City, are planning for light rail, modern trolleys or other forms of rail transportation.

There are some positive developments on the rail front, but not near Waukesha.

Commuter rail - - in the form of METRA - - will be extended from Chicago, through Kenosha and Racine Counties. to downtown Milwaukee, and Mayor Tom Barrett is proposing an additional extension through the Valley and into western Milwaukee County.

That's good news for commuters, and for retail and housing development that will take place along the line, and near the stations.

But talk radio and some of its allies - - hidebound and locked into an ideological position against public transportation spending (other than more highways) - - overlooked the business opportunities surrounding light rail investment.

Yes, investment. That's the right word.

Talk radio and politicians like Scott Walker end up positioning themselves as anti-growth and anti-business in the rail transit debate. Walker opposed light rail so he could stay on the right side of the right-wing talk radio programs that created his County Executive candidacy.

Walker is still opposing the Milwaukee Connector guided-bus system - - even though it would enhance his county, add jobs and panache to the city and its environs, and boost his county bus system.

Go figure

On the other hand, it's a real plus for Milwaukee and for the hometown favorite, Midwest Airlines, that AMTRAK now stops at Mitchell Airport. That brings airline passengers in Northern Illinois an attractive alternative to O'Hare.

That's how rail transportation spending functions as an investment.

And a new multi-purpose transportation hub will replace the aging, demoralizing AMTRAK station in downtown Milwaukee.

That means there will be additional transportation options into and south of the downtown, and perhaps somewhat to the west for commuters and some tourists - - but it's an incomplete upgrade because it will not extend through Waukesha with either light or commuter rail.

And there will be no AMTRAK, or METRA extensions, to Madison anytime soon, either.

In an era of rising fuel costs, in a political climate where conservatives purportedly push "choices," in a state that needs job development and a push forward, that's nuts.


At 11:16 AM, Blogger Puba said...

Let's be honest. Suburban politicians and their talk-radio voices oppose any mass transit improvements that will make it more convenient for minorities to work and (heaven forbid) live in their counties, cities, and neighborhoods. Shame on those who practice the politics of racial exclusion. One day, they will have to answer to a higher power.

At 10:38 PM, Blogger gc4me said...

Let's not degrade this discussion to the race card, because light rail proponents do not need that farfeched last resort. The race card will simply turn sensible moderates off to what is a damn good idea.

The fact is that WI's transport policy is exclusively to make good on land investments. A developer buys a crappy plot of land on the edge of the city, pays the right poltician to build a big road to it, and all the sudden the land is worth something. The real estate lobby is one of the most powerful in our state, and this is what they buy.

Transit is shown to spur the kind of dense, pedestrian friendly, green urban development that many people do want (which is why houses in Tosa, Shorewood, and Whitefish Bay are so expensive).


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