Milwaukee Magazine - Bruce Murphy - February 1997
The service started in 1995 and was soon exceeding ridership forecasts. In just 18 months, it has grown to an average of 7,000 daily passengers -- all this with only five trains in the evening and five in the morning traveling at an average speed of about 35 mph in a metropolitan area only slightly larger than Milwaukee.
Milwaukee could create an equally comfortable but much faster line covering the 40 miles from Oconomowoc through Waukesha, Brookfield and Elm Grove and on to Downtown Milwaukee and then Mitchell International Airport. The trains could also stop at the new Miller Park, 84th Street and the Zoo. They could travel at a top speed of 89 mph, and even with stops would move as fast as automobiles. And they would be much more reliable: There would be no delays for auto accidents, snow days or rush-hour snafus.
Unlike light rail, a commuter rail makes fewer stops in the city, travels more quickly (light rails top speed is 55 mph) and offers a more comfortable ride that appeals to upscale commuters. Yet it has the potential to attract "reverse commutes" -- Central City residents who travel the opposite way, to jobs in Waukesha County.
Commuter rail is a very attractive alternative to both light rail or special freeway lanes (for carpoolers and buses), the two transit modes that have dominated debate over how to reduce congestion in the I-94 corridor. Commuter rail is much cheaper. It takes more drivers off the freeway. And it is the only alternative that operates in an existing right of way (along the railroad tracks), meaning no homes or businesses are likely to be torn up (as with special lanes) and no streets must be converted for transit (as with light rail).
Perhaps more important, commuter rail may be the only option left, what with Waukeshas opposition to light rail and Milwaukees stand against special lanes. Both options, says Les Fafard of the state Department of Transportation (DOT), "have been taken off the table."
The stalemate has left Gov. Tommy Thompsons administration scrambling to find some way to claim the $241 million in federal money allocated for a "transit way" along I-94. "They dont want to be perceived as the people who threw away $240 million," says James Rowen, policy adviser to Mayor John Norquist.
"The longer it sits there and grows spider webs, the more people from other cities will be going after that pot of money," warns Wisconsin Congressman Thomas M. Barrett (5th District). In fact, other cities have already grabbed $48 million of the original 1991 allocation of $289 million for Milwaukee. "Lets use it," pleads Peter Beitzel of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). "The money is sitting there, losing value every day. Just to lose it on spite is bad."
Commuter rail may be the one option that can gain the local agreement needed to claim the federal money. Politicians who favor or are not opposed to commuter rail include Norquist, Thompson, Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament, Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley and most state legislators from the area, including Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha) and Margaret Farrow (R-Elm Grove). Organizations that have endorsed it include the Public Policy Forum, Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the chambers of commerce of both Milwaukee and New Berlin. And surveys show that 70 percent of Milwaukee-area residents favor it.
Indeed, its almost impossible to find somebody opposed to commuter rail. In theory, the ALERT group (Against Light Electric Rail Transit) formed by light rail opponent George Watts is against all rail. But the groups director, Jeffery Marker, concedes that a commuter line connecting the airport to Downtown and the western suburbs "could be very viable."
Perhaps the only reliable opponent of commuter rail is WISN radio talk show host Mark Belling. His theories, to judge by an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, suggest the vast gulf that exists between radio entertainment and serious public policy.
Running a commuter rail to the western suburbs, Belling flatly declared, "is stupid." Oh.
"The biggest problem I have is that its a foot in the door to light rail," he continued, still busy fighting the last war.
Belling went on to argue that "no one" would use commuter rail. On what was this prediction based? "My knowledge of human behavior."
As Belling spoke, the relatively tiny city of Boise, Idaho, was experimenting with creating a commuter train. Salt Lake City has broken ground on a 15-mile line. Some 16 other cities in America already have commuter rail, while 19 have light rail. Miami started a temporary commuter line while its I-95 freeway was under construction and has kept it going because it became so popular. Ridership on the nations commuter rails has risen by one-third since the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, Milwaukee remains a kind of automobile island, one of the largest metro areas without rail transit of any kind.
But people who get out of their cars are less likely to listen to talk radio. When I asked Belling how he proposed to alleviate growing congestion on I-94, he suggested adding more lanes. When I pointed out the history of freeways in America, that more lanes always cause more urban sprawl and, ultimately, all the more congestion, he offered a simple solution: "What if you build an 80-lane highway?"
The Concrete Fix
Atlanta, Georgia, may be the city that has come closest to realizing Bellings absurd vision. Faced with growing congestion, Atlanta kept building ever more miles of highway. It now has more than one freeway mile per 1,000 residents, the second-most of any city in America. The result is urban sprawl on a spectacular scale: The Atlanta region is 100 miles across, so spread out that its difficult for mass transit to work.
The result is horrible congestion, traffic delays and auto emissions. If Atlanta fails to comply with ozone standards in the next two years, its 13-county area stands to lose as much as $600 million a year in federal transportation funds.
The paradox of the freeway has been clear ever since the first ones were built by Robert Moses, the New York public planner who might be called the father of the freeway. Moses built highway after highway through New York City and State, always with the goal of reducing congestion. Just the opposite happened: Government-subsidized highways provided easy access to outlying, cheaper land, which was a boon to real estate developers and a magnet to suburban migration. As people moved farther from the city, they became ever more dependent on automobiles, requiring ever more highways.
"Its as if we havent learned anything in 50 years," notes David Bernstein, a professor of civil engineering at Princeton University. "Every mile of road you build induces people to drive. If you build it, they will come." A study of California from 1973 to 1990 showed that each 10 percent increase in highway miles caused a 9 percent growth in traffic.
Fortunately, Milwaukees level of sprawl and congestion has not reached that of most cities. But as projections of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission show, its only a matter of time before gridlock arrives. The number of people driving in the I-94 corridor from Waukesha to Downtown Milwaukee each weekday has grown from 190,000 in 1980 to 270,000 today. Over the next decade, SEWRPC expects that to increase to 315,000, but its projections have always been exceeded. Its quite possible that traffic on I-94 will be twice as congested by 2010 as it was in 1980.
As the experience of other cities shows, adding more capacity to I-94 will eventually worsen the problem. The DOTs Fafard concedes the obvious: "Were not going to build our way out of congestion."
Nor would it be politically feasible. Widening I-94 would require the destruction of homes and businesses, generating vehement opposition from residents. Rodney Krunen, state commissioner of railroads, notes that across the country, its getting difficult to acquire any right of way in dense urban areas. "I think that eras over," he notes. "Even getting these acquisitions for a new exit or entrance to freeways -- its getting impossible."
Roads and highways are extraordinarily land intensive, taking up about 16 percent of the land in Milwaukee County. As these roadways get congested, there is no solution but to take more land for more roadways. Rail transit, by contract works better as passengers are added: the more customers, the more frequent the service can be. New highways can fill up to the congestion point in a decade, while a rail builds ever more passengers and service. Thats what makes rail such an attractive complement to the automobile.
Gov. Thompson, by all accounts, is aware of the benefits of rail. He served as a very active board member of Amtrak. "The governor tends to be real committed to rail," says the MMACs Beitzel. But the DOT, which oversees all planning, tends to be fixated on highways. "I dont think (DOT head) Chuck Thompson has any interest in rail," says Beitzel.
When DOT plans for freeways, it advocates huge capital outlays and state-of-the-art technology. For trains, it offers cheap, makeshift proposals, the rail equivalent of a dirt road. DOTs 1993 plan for a Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger rail proposed a service to slow (a one hour and forty-five minute commute!) that no one would have taken it.
DOT is now planning a 90-day trail of commuter rail from Milwaukee to Watertown this spring. Alas, the departments principal goal is not to create a viable consumer service but to facilitate its repaving of I-94. The department refers to the proposal as a construction "mitigation measure." As DOT planner Ron Adams concedes, "We are not prepared to spend a lot of money."
The service will have no midday trains. No stations will be built along the way, meaning passengers may be waiting in the snow or rain. No track or grade-crossing improvements will be made to enhance the trains speed or comfort. And the trail is so short-lived that "people are going to say, Why should I get in the habit if its going to disappear in three months?" argues Richard Schreiner, vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers. "Its just a recipe to fail."
DOTs own ridership projections verify Schreiners suspicions: The agency anticipates 778 daily users of its commuter line, far less than the 1,150 people who now take the Wisconsin Coach Lines bus from Waukesha to Downtown each day.
"If people choose to sample commuter rail," notes Krunen, "they have to have a positive experience or they wont keep doing it." As with any other form of transportation, it takes capital outlays and creative planning to create a positive experience.
Real Rail Service
Tim Jorgenson is a consultant who has spent much of his career working for railroads, including a stint as partner of the South Shore Line from Chicago to South Bend (then a privately owned company). "The typical mentality" of government rail planners, he notes, is "an engineers perspective: Theres a train and some seats. What more do we need?"
Jorgenson argues that you must spend enough to create an attractive service for potential customers. To that end, Milwaukee Magazine asked Jorgenson to do some rough planning of a commuter line along I-94. He proposed the 39.5-mile route -- from Oconomowoc to Downtown Milwaukee to the airport -- and estimates a total capital outlay of about $255 million. At about $6.5 million per mile, this would be much cheaper than light rail ($30 million a mile) or freeways (some $35 million a mile for the most recent highway in Milwaukee). And almost the entire cost could be picked up by the federal government. (See "The Fight for Federal Money," at end of document.)
Jorgensons estimate includes the cost of 20 self-propelled diesel trains, which are popular in Europe but relatively unknown in America. Pennsylvania will be the first place in the country to use them in the modern era. Unlike traditional trains, which require at least three cars and a locomotive, each diesel car has its own motor and can travel by itself or coupled to other cards.
This allows maximum flexibility for a smaller metro area like Milwaukee: A midday run might feature just one car seating about 90 passengers, thereby saving on fuel, maintenance and staff. Rush-hour service would have more cars and more capacity. Jorgensons idea is to run the trains every half-hour, 36 round trips a day, with down time only from midnight to 5 a.m. "The more frequent the service," he notes, "the more youll induce ridership."
Jorgenson pictures a route that begins at the rail line along the east end of the airport. There would be major stops at the Amtrak station, 84th Street (and State Fair Park), downtown Elm Grove, Highway 164 (about 198th Street) and Oconomowoc. Some cars could run express-style, with just those stops; others could stop at secondary stations in Bay View, Miller Park (and the VA Hospital), the County Zoo, Brookfield (about 168th Street) and Hartland.
To reduce or eliminate conflict with freight trains, Jorgensons route runs along the little-used "Airline" from 35th Street through West Allis to Elm Grove. For the rest of the route, he would build a second track along the right of way, to separate freight and commuter rail. His budget includes money to build stations, upgrade signaling, eliminate a number of grade crossings and install new, continuously welded rail with concrete ties to assure a smooth ride.
Jorgenson proposes a top speed of 89 mph (his budget would also pay for an "automatic train stop" system, required by the federal government to achieve such a speed). But it may be possible to travel faster over segments of the Airline. The diesel units have a top speed of 110 mph. "When these things take off, the acceleration is incredible," notes Rick Teltz, rail planner for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Even with a 89 mph maximum, Jorgenson believes the service could deliver you from Downtown to Highway 164 in Waukesha in 17 minutes, to Hartland in 27 minutes, to Oconomowoc (nonstop) in a half-hour. Meanwhile, you could be reading a newspaper, working at a lap-top computer or enjoying the other kinds of comforts that Vancouvers West Coast Express boasts.
In addition, there would be luggage racks for airport-bound passengers. The airport station might be the most critical one in the system: "It connects people to the most important port in the state," Jorgenson notes. At the station, he pictures a luggage check-in and shuttle service that takes passengers directly to the check-in desks of airlines, thus bypassing the main terminal.
Some 1,860 of Mitchell Internationals daily passenger load comes from Waukesha County. Another 3,300 people come from Milwaukee County, many from the West Side who might want to try the rail connection. Business Travelers could be dropped off at the rail station by their spouses, skip any airport terminal hassles and save on long-term airport parking.
"This would become an economic boon to Milwaukee," Krunen predicts. "You would increase the use of Mitchell Field by people from the western suburbs who now use (Chicagos) OHare airport. This train-to-the-plane idea -- the governor has quite an interest in it."
Weekday commuters to Downtown would have buses waiting to take them to their place of business. "A couple thousand passengers would give us the impetus to do something special," says Joe Caruso, marketing planner for Milwaukee County Transit.
"This has worked very effectively in Chicago and other cities," says Krunen. "They have buses waiting and they take them right to Michigan Avenue."
Reverse commuters to Waukesha could have company shuttles waiting at the station to take them to work. Workers at the medical center on the Milwaukee County Grounds could take a shuttle bus from the 84th Street stop. Special events like Summerfest, the Circus Parade and State Fair could generate tremendous ridership. The Miller Park stop could bring tourists from Downtown hotels to the Milwaukee Brewers games.
Jorgensen believes a weekday total of 12,000 passengers is eventually attainable. That might be optimistic. With a metro area twice the size of Milwaukee, Miamis commuter rail has grown fourfold in just four years -- from 3,000 to 11,000 passengers. Chicagos South Shore Line serves about 12,000 daily passengers. Los Angeles Metrolink, serving the most car-oriented community in America, has taken 8.5 percent of commuters off the freeways. These are bigger metro areas, but their rail line is downtown only -- no service to the airport. The Baltimore-Washington commuter rail, which does serve an airport, has 19,000 daily riders.
And all of these are relatively new railways that are still growing. "When good commuter rail is available anywhere," Krunen notes, "it has continue to build." A survey by the Milwaukees Public Policy Forum showed that 59 percent of area residents who drive to work alone would ride a train if service was "convenient, safe, fast and dependable." If Milwaukees line is in place when the Marquette Interchange is rebuilt, that pool of possible customers might pour into trains to avoid disruptions to their Downtown commute.
Jorgenson envisions an average one-way fare (depending on how far you travel) of $2 to $5, which would save money for Downtown commuters from Waukesha whose automobile costs (nearly $6 or 18 miles) and daily parking fees ($2.50 to $8) can add up.
Vancouver had a public contest to name its rail line, which helped build customer interest. The line is government owned, but a wide range of private contractors (under a bid system) provide the train crews, equipment maintenance, parking lots and coffee bars. This approach (rather than depending on the aging trains and failing management of Amtrak) would help assure good service and lower costs.
The operational costs of rail are likely to compare favorably to Milwaukee County Transit, whose buses recover about 37 percent of costs from the fare box. (The rest comes from state transportation funds and the county property tax.) Across the country, commuter rail outperforms most buses, recovering about 49 percent of operating costs from fares. A rail line here could draw on both Milwaukee and Waukesha counties for some local funding. That annual "subsidy," however, needs to be compared to the range of tax funds used to finance automobile travel.
The Free Ride
Every time you get into your car, the ride comes courtesy of all kinds of government funding. While the gas tax funds state highways in Wisconsin, "theres a lot of indirect subsidy of auto travel, a lot of costs people dont realize," notes SEWRPC planner Otto Dobnick. Property taxes help pay for the construction of county and city highways and roads, street lighting, highway patrol, storm sewers and snowplowing.
Different studies have estimated that anywhere from 88 percent to just 28 percent of all highway costs are paid for by users. This disagreement probably depends on which costs are included. Such studies generally do not include tax exemptions given to companies who offer free parking to employees. Or how about the costs of pollution caused by automobile drivers? Or the tremendous medical costs associated with auto accidents?
There was a time when transportation was less subsidized, when privately owned toll roads and bridges charged users and passenger rail was supported strictly by the farebox. But beginning n the 1920s, the federal government began spending billions on highways, while offering no comparable subsidy for rail. Over the years, federal spending on highways rose -- to $2.7 billion in 1940, $4.6 billion in 1950 and $11.5 billion in 1960, while little or nothing went to rail.
The differential subsidy, argues conservative commentator Paul Weyrich, "made auto use very appealing, if not irresistible," while undermining rail, which steadily lost customers. In a country like Switzerland, he notes, the government had a more balanced subsidy of both highways and rail, "enabling consumers to make something approaching a free-market choice of travel modes." Result: Swiss citizens are six times more likely to use rail than Americans.
A more balanced transportation approach would result in some benefits that only rail can achieve. Compared to rail passengers, auto commuters are five times more likely to have an accident and 88 times more likely to suffer a fatality, according to a study by the Carmen Group, which estimated an annual savings of $1.7 billion from rail. Rail users also cause much less pollution, saving $263 million a year in environmental degradation, according to the study.
The economic benefits of commute rail are many. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute estimates that road congestion costs the nation $53 billion a year in wasted time and fuel. Commuter rail lowers this cost by removing drivers from the highway (about 72 percent using the Virginia Railway Express, for instance, previously traveled by car).
The local economy has been hampered for years because potential workers from Central City Milwaukee (where as many as 48 percent of job seekers lack a car) have no way to travel to suburban businesses. "We need a way to get workers out to Waukesha County," says its county executive, Dan Finley. Commuter rail could provide the connection.
Because it has fewer stops than light rail, commuter rail has less impact on development patterns. But as Teltz notes, "Its still a development tool. With rail line, you increase property values nearby and you also have more development along the line."
Studies have shown that the presence of a commuter rail station increases the value of nearby homes by 6.7 percent. New Jerseys commuter rail has spurred development of an additional seven million square feet of office space near two key stations. And in Illinois, the Village of Grayslake is planning its community around a Metra Station; the plan includes 80 townhouses, 144 single-family homes, parks and wetland areas.
What commuter rail provides is another option for metro-area residents. Those who prefer the car can reject it. Those whod rather live as far from the line as possible can do so. But inevitably, the railway will fight urban sprawl by concentrating development around stations. Riders will park there, stop for coffee or to shop on the way home.
Though commuter rail will never serve as many people as light rail, it can be modified over time to meet much of that demand: Express lines can buzz through the city while others could stop every half-mile, if the demand is there. That, in turn, would depend on adapting bus lines to connect to the rail stations.
Perhaps the most attractive and yet subtle benefit of commuter rail is that its an investment in infrastructure. Suddenly the metro area would seem more cosmopolitan, as tourists Downtown (or in Waukesha) could easily take the rail to Miller Park, State Fair Park or the zoo. The rail line to Oconomowoc could ultimately be extended to Madison, connecting the states two key cities (see "The Capital Connection," at end of document). And the rail right of way along the east side of the airport provides room to continue the line down through Racine and Kenosha, connecting southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois to our airport and Downtown.
Because commuter rail is a regional service, it benefits the entire region. Ultimately, it will help to unite a metropolitan area where local politicians are so contentious that they cant even find a way to accept a federal grant.
"Light rail is dead and someone should drive a stake through its heart," says Mayor Joe Greco of Menomonee Falls. "But I think anyone with vision knows that in the next 20 years, were going to have to have some form of mass transit."
If mass transit is inevitable, it surely makes sense to move now, when federal money is there to fund it. Milwaukeeans, however, have been without rail for so long that they have difficulty imagining the need for it. But as SEWRPC planner Dobnick puts it, "People here arent any different than any other place. It makes sense to have transit alternatives, and as you do, people will use them."
THE CAPITOL CONNECTION
a commuter line to Oconomowoc succeeds, the line could be extended to Madison. Rail
consultant Tim Jorgenson estimates an additional cost of $146 million for a first-class
passenger rail connection to the capital. In some parts of the stretch from Watertown to
Madison, Jorgenson says, a self-propelled diesel train running on continuously welded
rails could legally run at its top speed of 110 mph. A nonstop express from Milwaukee to
Madison could get there in about 55 minutes, much faster than an auto.
The rail service would tie together the states two largest cities, would reduce urban sprawl by attracting development along the rail line and would be a boon to University of Wisconsin-Madison students, legislators and all those doing business in the capital.
The railroad line travels right to the new Monona Terrace in downtown Madison and then to Camp Randall. Jorgenson notes that Chicagos South Shore train sends 30 passenger cars to South Bend for Notre Dame football games. UWs games could attract similar ridership from Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Brewers and Bucks games, Summerfest and other attractions would gain riders from Madison.
Pennsylvania, the first state to announce the purchase of self-propelled diesel trains, will use them for a similar project: passenger rail along the 104-mile route from the states largest city (Philadelphia) to the state capital (Harrisburg). Rick Teltz of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation notes that if state employees travel by train instead of automobile for business in Philadelphia, "the savings to the state is significant" when comparing the train fare to reimbursement for mileage and parking.
Pennsylvanias Republican Gov. Tom Ridge has been the leader in promoting commuter rail there, Teltz notes, and "Its making a difference. Its causing a lot of enthusiasm, the fact that the governors out there talking about it."
Speaker and Waukesha Republican Scott Jensen is quite frank about his goals for the $241
million in federal money allocated for a transit way along I-94: Im hoping we can
access the money for (rebuilding) the Marquette Interchange. Thats Gov. Tommy
Thompson himself hasnt revealed his intentions, but insiders suggest that the state Department of Transportation shares Jensens goal. Yet, according to William Fung of the Federal Highway Administration, current federal law would not allow the money to be used for rebuilding a freeway. Jensen, however, hints that the Republicans may depend on Wisconsins 6th District Congressman Thomas Petri, a key Republican on the House Transportation Committee, to rewrite the provision affecting Wisconsin.
James Rowen, policy adviser for Mayor John Norquist, says "that would be highway robbery, literally," and Norquist would rally Wisconsins Democratic delegation to fight it. Petri advises both sides against such a fight: "Its counterproductive to bring the controversy out here from Wisconsin. If they cant get it together, the federal government will just spend the money in some other state."
Fung says that using the money for a commuter rail line along the I-94 corridor "may be a possibility," particularly if local officials in Milwaukee and Waukesha would support it. The law would allow the federal government to finance up to 85 percent of a transit project, but the 15 percent local match might be able to include existing infrastructure (like bridges at railway crossings), thus lowering Wisconsins cash outlay.
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Revised: March 02, 1998.