Is State Ready for Rail?
Some Wisconsin cities plunging ahead with plans for rail; others still in the dark
From making frequent stops to filling up his gas tank, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and hunting for a parking spot, Chad Donnick dreads his daily commute.
But with the prospect of a high-speed rail line between his home in Madison and his job in downtown Milwaukee, Donnick, a Web developer, is ready to trade that stress for a more relaxing ride.
“I would give up my car in a heartbeat,” Donnick said. “A train would be so convenient. Presumably there would be wireless access (on the train), so I could work, and I could sleep, too.”
Although commuters like Donnick are ready to jump on board as potential riders, some communities along the proposed 85-mile train route acknowledge they aren’t quite ready for this “shovel ready” project. Officials at stops along the rail line – Brookfield, Oconomowoc, Watertown and Madison – vary widely in how prepared they are for federal stimulus project, which could cost up to $600 million, from nominally aware of the plan to designating a parcel of precious downtown land for a new train station.
This summer, Wisconsin plans to apply for federal stimulus dollars for a new passenger-train service between downtown Milwaukee and Madison’s Dane County Regional Airport. State transportation officials say the train initially would make six round trips a day between Wisconsin’s two largest cities, increasing to 10 round trips if more funding becomes available.
Rail details lacking
But interviews with state and city leaders in Wisconsin show some important pieces of the plan are missing.
For example, in Madison, where Donnick would hop on the train, plans call for a train stop at the airport. But airport spokesperson Sharyn Wisniewski says officials don’t know where the train would arrive or precisely how passengers would get from the airport to major destinations such as downtown and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus half a dozen miles away.
“If it goes to the airport, why would anybody want to take it?” said Eileen Bruskewitz, a Dane County supervisor and rail critic. “Most people would want the train to come downtown.”
For now, Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi said it’s unlikely the new Madison train stop would be built downtown. Traffic congestion would add up to 30 minutes of travel time, and environmental work has not been completed for such a station. Any changes to the plan, which won federal environmental approval in 2004, could harm Wisconsin’s chances for funding, he said.
Rachel Strauch-Nelson, spokesperson for Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, said the mayor “doesn’t know at this point” how the city would transport the rail riders. “It’s a little too premature to decide plans,” she said, but “this is definitely a priority of the mayor’s to figure out how we’ll do that.”
Officials do have some idea how much a train trip would cost. Busalacchi said tickets for the Madison-to-Milwaukee route would be comparable to an Amtrak trip between Milwaukee and Chicago, which costs $22 each way. Commercial bus fares between Madison and Milwaukee are about $20 each way.
Mayors eager for train service
The mayors of Brookfield, Watertown and Oconomowoc say passenger train service would bring big economic benefits to their communities. Standing at a long-vacant train station laced with spider webs, Brookfield Mayor Jeff Speaker sees the possibility of coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques springing up near the station, a structure built in 1867 that served as a passenger rail stop for just over a century.
“I love” the idea of rail, Speaker said. “It’s going to be great to come down here on a Friday night to a little restaurant or on Saturday morning to get coffee.”
Speaker acknowledged, however, that he knows little about the specifics of the state’s proposal. The city of 39,000 people has invested time, but no money, toward planning for the project, which Speaker said has been in the works for at least a decade.
Minutes away from Brookfield in Oconomowoc, Mayor Maury Sullivan said he’s all for the new train service but said no decision has been made on where to locate a station in this community of 14,000. The Oconomowoc Common Council is expected to hear this week about the city’s three proposed locations. Sullivan said high-speed rail could serve the growing number of families in the city in which one spouse commutes to Milwaukee and the other to Madison.
Kathy Robertstad, an Amtrak traveler from Oconomowoc, said a local train connection could provide a smoother connection to her friends and family throughout the Midwest. “It’s cheaper than flying, and I can avoid the Chicago traffic and the road rage,” Robertstad said while waiting for a train at the downtown Milwaukee train station one recent morning.
Other Milwaukee-to-Chicago commuters are also eager to see a train connection to Madison. Peter Henderson, a Milwaukee attorney who rides the train to Chicago for meetings, said he and his colleagues would use a train to get to the firm’s Madison office.
“This takes out the wild card of how long traffic will take,” Henderson said. “There’s an ease of getting there and being able to work in the process.”
Local money launches detailed planning
Watertown, population 23,000, appears to be the furthest along in preparing for passenger rail service. The city is spending $50,000 in state and local money on planning for a station. Mayor Ron Krueger expressed some frustration with the lack of details coming from the state.
“This is really kind of winging it,” he said. “Many of them (state planners) just don’t have the answers.”
Replied transportation spokesman Christopher Klein: “What existing model in the U.S. can you identify that isn’t ‘just winging it?'”
Krueger remains optimistic about passenger rail’s potential to benefit Watertown, which hopes for a $15 million to $20 million economic boost. The city estimates 180 people a day will arrive at and depart from the Jefferson County community.
As he spoke, excavators cleared a lot for redevelopment that Krueger hopes will include the train station. Krueger said he is “90 percent” sure the line will be built.
“We’re moving forward with planning and development to get our ducks in a row so we’re ready to go when they get the money.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.
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