One of the frustrating things in the debate about rail in southeastern Wisconsin is the tendency of folks to be either for it or against as a matter of first principles. Rail is either, for opponents, the foolish desire of someone's inner child for a choo choo (it's actually far less innocent than that) or, for proponents, something we need to enter an imagined 21st century.
Take, as an example, my former Backstory colleague Jim Rowen who is an intelligent. decent and charming person. I don't mean to pick on him (well, actually I do) but it has always seemed to me that Jim has an innate preference for cities and (although I'd suspect he'd differ)collective solutions. He is a bear on the environment and a bull on the environmental movement's preferred solutions. He tends to support any rail project, arguing that even those that don't make sense in and of themselves "build momentum" (or at least that is how I understand his argument on why we need a train downtown that goes in a circle and that nobody really expects to attract significant ridership).
It seems to me that rail is an old technology that still has appropriate applications. It can work when lots of people want to go from point A to point B and, for the most part, stay at point B once they arrive. If these things aren't true, i.e., if A and B are collection and dispersal points for further travel, then rail won't work because it has been superseded by a later technology that offers the ability of the traveler to take multiple routes that rail cannot. Under those circumstances, rail is attractive only when something prevents effective auto travel like highly congested roads. High speed rail might attract auto traveler but its going to have to much faster to overcome the inconvenience of moving to and from the collection and dispersal points.
This is why Amtrak's Hiawatha service is attractive to travelers and generally full. There are a lot of people who want to go to downtown Chicago and the roads into the city are very congested.
But I can't, for the life of me, figure out why anybody thinks the proposed high speed train from Milwaukee to the Madison area makes sense. It is conceivable to me that a train that ran from Milwaukee to downtown Madison might make sense. There are a lot of people who will want to travel between these points and it would be a relatively easy thing to run a shuttle bus or street car to the university which is another high volume destination. Whether it would make sense financially is another matter, but at least it makes sense to think that it would be used.
But the proposed train - said to cost $519 million dollars - doesn't do that. It terminates at the Dane County Regional Airport. I can't tell you how many times I have been to Madison. I can't tell you how many times that I have flown in and out of Wisconsin. I can tell you how many times I have been to the Dane County Regional Airport.
Never. I don't even know how to get there although I have some sense that it's not far from American Family's headquarters.
Now, of course, there are some folks who may want to travel that route and I understand that people will argue that we can run buses to other destinations. But taking people to where they do not want to go before they are taken to where they do want to go is what will make the rail connection less desireable than driving to Madison.
It seems to me that supporters are in some type of denial. This line is supposed to carry 1.08 million passengers as opposed to the 766000 that currently use the Hiawatha line because ... why? Is there something at the Dane County Regional Airport that I don't know about. Could be, I suppose, since I have never had a reason to go there.
Maybe the key to success is at the eastern end of the line - connecting Brookfield and Oconomowoc to Milwaukee for commuters. That's a case that someone could try to make (I am skeptical that there is enough traffic to justify it, but I could be wrong), although it it terminates at the Amtrak station I don't think it will be very attractive.
But even if a southeastern route makes sense that still wouldn't tell us why we need to go all the way to the Dane County Regional Airport