Monday, March 23, 2009

The train to nowhere

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true, i.e., if A and B are collection and dispersal points for further travel, then rail won't work because it has been superseded by a later technology that offers the ability of the traveler to take multiple routes that rail cannot.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


Dad29 said...

it's not far from American Family's headquarters

It's a lot closer to Oscar Mayer's weenie plant.

I saw that too, and wondered why anyone would want to terminate there. From there to the Capitol is about 20 minutes by car (longer by bus, I suppose.)

And the intermediate stops--WATERTOWN??

Jimi5150 said...

Good post. Trains are OLD technology. It'd be one thing if we were talking about an ultra modern 220mph, elevated, and modern fueled system . . . something that could actually compete with planes. But, we're not. Why pursue a system that competes with buses and cars? To spend that kind of money on such a small percentage of the population is irresponsible. As for the 20 minutes faster the train would be . . . that doesn't include getting to the train station, or getting to your destination at the other end.

Display Name said...

Thinking another move ahead, we'd have to ask what sort of dispersal improvements that Madison would create if this new line existed. It would pretty much need to go down the Isthmus, no? Unless you thought we all wanted to go to Waunakee and not downtown.

These plans follow existing rail lines. None dare consider the costs of other routes. In Watertown's defense, it's roughly twice the population of Oconomowoc. Dad29, are you saying Oconomowoc is cooler than Watertown?

Who's interested in measuring the cost of sprawl or the cost of subsidies to the automobile? Jim Rowen.

Who seems to overlook these questions in favor of the immediate gratifications of the auto? If your pinnacle goal is door-to-door convenience in the shortest time, the auto always wins.

If you're willing to admit the tremendous governmental costs of constructing and maintaining sewers and roads to all that sprawl, or the national costs of protecting that car's fuel supply, or the cost of the car to the environment, or consider the effort of driving an hour on the highway versus napping on a train, or admit that most tourism involves going to interesting places with a unique city-like sense of place and not sprawl, then your mental equation might look different.

Rick Esenberg said...

Subsidies per passenger mile for rail are many, many times greater than for highways. If people preferred napping on trains (or busses) to driving, we'd see more ridership on busses and trains - and we do where busses and trains make sense. I always take the Hiawatha to downtown Chicago.

I don't know that there is a rule of tourism that says people always want to go to places with a "city-like" feel. Bringing it up reflects a judgment about what type of place you prefer. I understand that preference, but not everyone shares it.

Display Name said...

I've met people who like to vacation in the woods, and those who like Vegas or even the Dells, but I've yet to meet one who spends their vacation solely enjoying the strip malls in a city's sprawl. There's no there there.

As for relative subsidies, I wonder if any pro- or anti-car group has ever attempted to assess all the benefits given to the automobile per mile. In both cases, communities are deciding to use the awesome power of government to subsidize a method of travel and of course they're making value judgements while they do it.

handysmurff said...

"From there to the Capitol is about 20 minutes by car."

Twenty minutes? You MIGHT be able to make that trip take twenty minutes under conditions of optimal congestion. Ten is more like it!

That said, the station belongs downtown, not at the airport. But political considerations - trying to make Dane County Regional some sort of hub, which is wishful thinking - probably dictates that the train will stop there.

Anonymous said...

There is a bus service that currently runs the same route and delivers riders to downtown Madison and the UW campus. With the proposed train time and cab/bus ride into downtown you are looking at, at best, a slight improvement in travel time. Convenience though will not be there. I am sure Badger Bus is not panicking ..

Will the fares be comparable ? maybe ..

Will the goverment subsidy be the same? no way ...

I hope Gov. Jim has the guts to turn down the offer as proposed. Wisconsin will be on the line forever to subsidy the usage.

FYI: I use trains extensively when traveling on the East coast and see their advantages, when done correctly.

Anonymous said...

What is with liberals and the love of choo choo's. Do they look fondly on their ongoing childhood?
It's like it's a game or something.
We don't need nor want light rail, high speed rail or any more trains in this state. Why do liberals continue to try to spend money we don't have on projects we don't want nor need???

Anonymous said...

Why does Choo Choo Charlie think he knows what ANYONE wants or needs?

Stephen Karlson said...

It's not necessarily liberalism to consider spending less public money on roads, or more on Passenger Rail. The late Paul Weyrich made the point, repeatedly, that a lot of road construction, particularly in exurban areas, was a subsidy to relatively well-off people living in upscale developments.

In the main body of the post is a question about the expected passenger loadings. The article does not make clear whether that loading includes current Chicago-Milwaukee riders who are on the trains extended to Madison, or whether this is 1.1 million new riders. As a second figure, it seems high. Interpreted as the first figure, it means a lower cost-benefit ratio for the service.

Anonymous said...

I would seriously doubt Quip29 has ever been to Madison. Or been on a train. His sarcasm is used to cloak his ignorance.