Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Faith in rail

In Sunday's Crossroads section, John Gurda reflects on trains in Zurich and how cool it would be if we had them here in Milwaukee, rather than living in "Carland" - a world that he finds isolating, alienating and inefficient. It's wastefulness seems "self evident" (so he offers no support) and those who are "stuck" in their cars are "grim."

As I have blogged before, I like trains too. But, as I have also blogged, I am frustrated by the typical "pro-transit" writing which almost always ignores the economics. Zurich, of course, in nothing like Milwaukee. Its population density is almost twice as high. Fixed rail works when there are large amounts of people who wish to travel between fixed points. If that condition does not obtain, then rail is inefficient and will not be used. No amount of wishing it were otherwise will make it so.

Gurda's expression of delight at the fact that the feds will impose upon the city what he calls a "downtown rail network" - actually a train that goes in a square - is nothing more than an expression of taste without some sense of who will use it and what it will cost in comparison to alternatives.


Scot1and said...

There was a study about the St. Louis light rail system, which concluded that it would have been less expensive to buy all of the riders toyota Prius(es).


Dave Reid said...

Ok rick how about Dallas (3605), Houston (3828), Charlotte(2515), and Portland(4288) to name just a few? All of those have built actual light-rail lines and all have lower population densities than Milwaukee. Further the downtown connector is a streetcar, not light rail, so it requires lower population densities to work. That said downtown Milwaukee has 18,000 residents and a 77,000 daytime population which is plenty of density.

Finally the true cost of the automobile to the city is never truly calculated. For just one example note the $26 million TIF for a parking garage for Manpower.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate the economic difficulties of justifying light-rail or mass-transit in general, but there is a chicken-and-egg conundrum here: doesn’t reliance on cars inhibit high population density? (where are you going to park all those cars?) and use of mass-transit enable high population density? (parking lots can become businesses and residences.) Waiting for Milwaukee’s population density to become “sufficient” to support light rail is just a way of putting it off. It’s like waiting for a tree to become “tall enough to water”. Providing light-rail could provide the opportunity for population density increases and give Milwaukeeans a choice they are currently unable to make.

I also wonder what fraction of total cost of building and maintaining roads is concealed from the general public by taking it out of general funds. Suppose we put the bulk of these costs onto a gas- or wheel-tax. The general income-tax rate would decline and the cost of gas would increase. Overall costs would hardly budge but it would be much clearer how expensive roads and cars actually are.

sean s.

Terrence Berres said...

Though perhaps the country's only professional local historian, Mr. Gurda does not discuss that Milwaukee had an extensive streetcar network, regional electric interurban trains, and commuter rail. They had been built and operated with private funds, in the hopes of making a profit. When they eventually incurred persistent losses, they were abandoned. There were opportunities for governments to subsidize, or assume, their continued operation. It was consistently decided that it would not be worth it.

Even if hindsight indicates some of those decisions were wrong, that doesn't justify the cost of re-creating these systems. At a presentation a few years ago by Mr. Gurda and Frank Zeidler, the former mayor recalled that the Milwaukee Common Council refused to purchase the last of the interurban train operation, which then still ran from downtown to Waukesha and to Hales Corners, for $600,000. The recent streetcar proposals, he noted, were estimated at $25 million a mile to build.

Brew Cityzen said...

Mr. Berres comment about the history of transit in Milwaukee is largely irrelevant. The advent of the automobile dramatically changed the way people viewed the world, and throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, everybody wanted cars and suburban living (this both a symptom and result of urban blight). The car was a new thing, it was seen as an unending benefit, and transit ridership inevitably declined.

But things are dramatically different now. Not everyone wants to live 30 minutes from downtown in an isolated neighborhood that requires them to drive everywhere. In particular, younger people tend to be more interested in some form of urban, transit-oriented living. Cities that provide a diversity of living arrangements will be at a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining these people, who are fundamental to any successful and lasting local economic achievement.

Milwaukee, as currently constituted, is basically designed only for one way of living--the car way. Nobody wants to force those of you who are happy in the privacy of suburban living to abandon your vehicles and move with your four little children into a downtown apartment. The point is to provide options, and to improve the ability of everyone in the region to be mobile enough to get to different places to work and play.

As for Mr. Esenberg's point about density, Anonymous has it right. You're looking at these issues in a vacuum. Milwaukee has sufficient density to support a network of transit now, but the point of transit is that it encourages dense development! You can't just take a city that has had transit for 100 years and compare to a city that has little to no transit and say "see less density!" and throw up your hands. Transit drives density, which drives transit-oriented devlopment, which drives more transit, as the cycle goes on and on. We shouldn't just throw down trains everywhere we like--consideration needs to be given to corridors and the potential for dense development. But the fact that we aren't as dense as some cities (though not all, as Dave points out) that have transit doesn't tell us anything about whether transit can be supported here. There is some level of demand for transit now, and that demand will increase if transit is developed and if other development decisions begin to be made conscious of that transit. You don't just throw down trains and be done with it, there has to be a fundamental rethinking about how certain neighborhoods and projects can and should be developed. This is also a reason, by the way, why buses can't be the only solution. You don't get the development benefits of transit if developers and prospective property owners can't be confident that a particular transit route isn't more or less permanent, and a bus moving around on city streets is not in any sense permanent. Dedicated lanes, rails, and streetcar wires both imply permanence and signal to the surrounding population that there is a transit line in place that may be able to serve them in ways that noticing a bus passing by through ordinary traffic.

What drives me crazy about this stuff is the number of willfully uninformed amateur transit experts these issues spawn.

The density objection is both factually wrong and short-sighted.

Terrence Berres said...

I will at least agree with Brew Cityzen that current transit advocates treat the history of rail transit as irrelevant. For example,

"Dedicated lanes, rails, and streetcar wires ... imply permanence..."

Maybe in the sense that buses still run on streets with paved-over streetcar track, e.g., Wisconsin Avenue.

Anonymous said...

Sean S.

The roads are already paid for by gas tax and license registration. In fact the transportation fund has been used to support the general fund to the tune of over a billion dollars over the last few biennium.

AnotherTosaVoter said...


There is a valid argument that the reason cities like Milwaukee don't have the density to support rail is because we citizens generally haven't even been given the choice to live in higher-density, transit oriented development.

A lot of anti-rail types make the claim that pro-rail types want to "force" people to use transit. Well, couldn't it be reasonably stated that for the most part people have been forced to rely on the automobile?

Display Name said...

Careful there, AnotherTosaVoter. Are you trying to switch on lightbulbs over other people's heads? You're saying that government decisions about zoning and growth have unintended consequences, and that there might be non-obvious societal costs associated with relatively unbridled growth? That all those roads and sewers might need repair some day, and that the gas tax won't cover it?

Dave Reid said...

Sean S.
I think if you investigate further, that the gas tax and registration fees have never fully funded roads. Add in the variety of subsidize for the auto, and oil industry, not to mention the money tossed at providing parking (TIFs often enough) and it is clear roads and the automobile are not nearly fully funded by gas taxes and/or registration fees.

Brian said...

Keynesians/monetarists often accuse hard money advocates of having a "gold fetish."

Is it fair to say that the people who currently obsess over a century old mode of transportation that their government forefathers threw out have a fetish for antiquated public transportation?

What might be most delicious is the fact that government policy which drove up energy costs over the past half century plus were probably also responsible for making electrical-energy wasting systems obsolete.

Anonymous said...

Dave Reid,

That gas taxes and registration fees do not fully fund roads is my point. And if they and gas-taxes did, then the true cost of highway systems would become clear to everyone. The cost of a mass-transit system might become more acceptable.



Our elders may have abandoned urban rail systems, but that decision may not have been wise.

You report the factoid of government policies driving up energy costs leading to the demise of urban rail; if you find that factoid “delicious” then what are we to make of the fact that urban rail systems (and railroads in general) are MORE energy efficient than automobiles and trucks?

sean s.

Anonymous said...

I don't know enough about light rail to advocate either, but reading this does make me want to ask a question:

Is higher population density a desirable thing?

Anonymous said...

Milwaukee is the eighth most densely populated metro area in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That isn't dense enough for you?