Monday, September 21, 2009

Rail Successes Abound Elsewhere: Milwaukee, Wisconsin Denied

I was in New Mexico not long ago and ran into an old friend who was thrilled about the new Rail Runner commuter passenger train line that connects Greater Albuquerque - - New Mexico's largest city - - to the capitol city of Santa Fe farther north.

My friend, an active senior and business owner, had just taken the Rail Runner from Albuquerque to an Indian Pueblo nearby for a statewide meeting. Cost of the ride: $3.

The system, long-discussed, and now in operation with a catchy name and brightly painted cars, has created a buzz.

More than 100 businesses already partner with the brand new Rail Runner by offering discounts on merchandise and services to riders.

Hotels are working train passes into package deals.

Special trains are added for University of New Mexico home football games in Albuquerque.

There's talk of running the line all the way to Denver.

In other words, New Mexicans love it - - and tourists will flock to it, because Santa Fe does not have scheduled airline service (locals rejected runway extensions, preferring their peace and quiet), so to get to the growing and popular State Capitol from Albuquerque's airport you need a ride, a bus ticket or a rental car loaded with taxes and fees.

You can read about Rail Runner here.

And you can read about Phoenix's embrace of its light rail system, which this New York Times story says has helped that city's downtown avoid the nationwide recession by delivering people on weekends to restaurants and other urban hot spots.

While business plunged across the city, revenues are actually up in the areas in the downtown served by light rail - - an unforeseen but greatly appreciated consequence.

And here in Wisconsin - - a state that had a reputation as a national laboratory for progressive thinking and policy experimentation - - we have, when it comes to urban rail...

Zip.

Yes, there is a proposed commuter rail line to connect Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha - - and thus to northern Illinois and Metra links to Chicago - - but it is blocked by regional politics, fearful local officials and fumbled state leadership.

And light rail was blockaded by a mutually self-serving alliance of anti-Milwaukee right-wing talk radio jocks and Republican politicians (then-Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley, then-Assembly Majority Leader Scott Jensen, and then-Gov. Tommy Thompson) a dozen years ago.

I can remember Mark Belling promising to fight light rail to his dying breath, and hearing Finley, live on the Belling show, deliver the good news that, through his veto, the Waukesha County Board of Supervisors had buried further consideration of a rail-and-highway improvement plan for both Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties.

It was a plan that both County boards had preliminarily endorsed, and with separate reservations, but with a commitment to move forward, cooperatively.

Even promising Waukesha County it could opt out of the rail piece didn't satisfy the anti-Milwaukee movement, as it felt a sense of accomplishment by driving a stake into Milwaukee's image, economy and future.

The talkers are still at it: light rail is an all-purpose dart to throw whenever needed at Milwaukee, especially those trying to modernize transit beyond buses.

And current Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, now a GOP candidate for Governor, is only too happy to call up the talkers and oppose anything on a rail in Milwaukee - - opposition that cost the county millions in its most recent sharing of federal transit financing with the City.

What counts for normal around here is negativity over positive action, politics over common sense, rhetoric over reality and self-imposed economic restraint over business development in Milwaukee:

The politics of rail in this area, as driven by suburban, anti-city interests, is that self-destructive.

So...forbidden by a special, Milwaukee-only statute from expanding through annexation, and poisoned by some political leadership that plays to suburban, conservative ideology, Milwaukee remains one of America's poorest cities, and also among its largest cities without urban rail.

Talk about cause-and-effect.

[Some light rail history, here.]

And it is in this context that I was interested to see that The Journal Sentinel's Sunday Crossroads section carried a long, cover piece about Milwaukee's perilous financial situation and the state's contribution to it.

The article's focus is tax and fiscal policy.

I'd add to it - - here is a link - - the enforced absence in Milwaukee of rail as an economic tool and transportation choice.

The construction of the Milwaukee-Racine-Kenosha commuter line would be a remedial first step, connecting south suburban communities and and two medium-sized cities to the Big City, and helping people understand first hand that rail is a virtue - - a value added - - and not a virus.

This always happens in cities that finally build rail. "Ah-ha" moments abound. The New York Times story about Phoenix notes that even critics of the system are using it.

The same benefits, the same changes in attitude and outcomes would take place if a streetcar/light rail system could get built in Milwaukee.

The latest proposal has a focus on the densely-populated East side- University of Milwaukee campus area, according to Mayor Tom Barrett.

In the long run - - delayed by false starts and anti-urban politics - - the Milwaukee economy needs a comprehensive urban rail system to bring people to the new Intermodal station (to which Midwest High Speed Rail will connect), the airport, the Menonomee Valley, Miller Park, the multiple downtown housing/retail/
commercial and entertainment venues, the Third and Fifth Wards, and the Medical complex - - just to name a few.

Imagine the ridership to and from a light rail station within walking distance of a new UWM School of Freshwater Science - - perhaps also a new UWM School of Engineering and Research - - near Allen-Bradley on S. 1st. Street - - with stops also in Bayview, on Water St., at City Hall, on Brady St. - - and all the way to UWM's main East Side campus.

Shorewood would want it.

Bayshore - - a major new retail destination where Whitefish Bay meets Glendale would want it.

Franklin, and New Berlin and Downtown Waukesha would, too.

Around the country, the synergistic rail-and-development message has been received: it is resisted in and for Rail-Free Milwaukee by forces that do not have Milwaukee's best interests in mind.

Around the country, there are successes where the public and private sectors have decided to work together, break the right wing and talk-radio/anti-city/anti-rail hammerlock, and make things happen.

Houston, Denver, Dallas, St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore - - and now Phoenix and Albuquerque - - are reaping the benefits of adding rail to their transit mix.

Can you imagine the DC area without Metro Rail?

Or Portland without its Light Rail?

What separates these cities and regions from Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin is civic optimism, and an ability to move forward.

Around here, we have stultifying regional stubbornness, a fear of new ideas and experience and a tendency - - amplified on talk radio - - to say "No," or "We Can't" that keeps conservative radio ratings and suburban ballot counts sky high, and which keeps Milwaukee's stagnation intractable.

When will we begin to start saying "Yes?"

And "Now!"

11 comments:

Anon Jim said...

James - right off the bat in the 2nd paragraph something needs to be corrected.

The "fare" for your friends Rail Runner ride in Santa Fe (which is smaller than Appleton in case you did not know) was $3, but that was hardly the cost.

Based on most U.S. rail systems the actual taxpayer subsidized cost was actually more in the range of $9 to $12 dollars if not more.

jpk said...

@Anon Jim-
I'd be interested in seeing where you got those figures - link?

Peter W said...

Don't you realize that actual cost is not a real issue when it comes to saving the environment and liberal spending. $3 per rider is a wonderful deal. Regarding the actual environmental costs, I would love to know the actual "carbon footprint" per rider of the Rail Runner. Regarding actual financial costs, based upon ridership and budget, you can figure $40 - $80 per rider, depending upon which numbers you look at.

Quite the waste of natural resources, and quite the waste of financial resources.

But to an environmentally focused (and blind to the economic impact) blogger, actual facts do not matter when making a point.

James Rowen said...

So what's the true cost per visitor of walking into a public building, like the State Office Building in Downtown Waukesha?

What's the true cost of my use of I-794 and I-94 south a few miles to the Lincoln Ave. exit today?

Do my taxes really cover it?

You can cook and cobble and parse the numbers a thousand wsays, but the truth is - - public services carry some form of subsidy.

Rail operations have many spinoffs that are good for the economy and the environment, which is the common air we breathe, water we drink and land that is in finite supply.

That's why so many businesses are partnering with the Rail Runner. It allows them to tap into the resource - - to which they have contributed, certainly - - and make some money, hire some employees and keep the ball rolling.

P Wolff said...

In the fight of: (a) actual operating costs of a freeway vs. (b) actual operating costs of a train - you can rest assured that the per user cost of a freeway is much less.

Anonymous said...

Why should Waukesha continue to pay none of the actual social costs in Milwaukee yet continue to demand its services, like one of the "welfare parasites" its selfish residents enjoy to complain about on a daily basis?

jpk said...

@P Wolff-
I'm not so sure that comparison is accurate. If you have a link I'd like to see it.

You might be interested in reading what real rational choice academics and economists say about these things. They suggest that compact development with rail options are more cost effective and efficient. Try picking up Sprawl Costs by Anthony Downs to start.

Joe Klein said...

And of course you get the normal response. The same small set of pro sprawl, anti-urbanist billionaires (I.E. David Koch - http://tinyurl.com/m6hrmy ) feed money to the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation and American's for Prosperity. They make billions keeping the public hooked on gasoline and sprawl. The anti-Health care movement is just a stalking horse for radical lazzi-faire economics, where corpocracy rules because the federal government is made powerless.

The knee-jerk libertarian/conservative response is a testimonial to the puppet master's good training technique.

De-socialize the Interstate system, then come back and argue your silly economics. Railroads were always, and still are, more profitable than privately owned turn-pikes. They use less land and less resources. A large chunk of the private trucking industry is propped up the 'socialized' interstate system. We pay a disproportionately higher fee via gas taxes to subsidize the repairs required to maintain truck freight operations. It's income redistribution and corporate welfare, plain and simple.

If the marketplace is truly free of government AND monopolistic influences, then (in theory) the most efficient should prevail. The problem with lazzi-faire economic theory is that without government enforcement of strong anti-trust, the monopolist always end up accruing economic and political power to the detriment of the middle and lower classes. Stable free-market capitalism is a myth, it has never existed and never will. Regulation is required to maintain free markets and to prevent corporate takeover of the republic.

Another problem under lazzi-faire is so called "natural monopolies" that can only be operated with provider or producer cooperatives, highly regulated private companies, or government owned entities. Arguably, transit systems, electrical systems, and telecommunications systems fall into this category.

Yes transit can be profitable - http://www.financialsense.com/fsu/editorials/2008/1203b.html

Anonymous said...

Nothing blights the Kenosha neighborhoods and deters business development more than the Metra.

James Rowen said...

So I guess the KRM commuter line might just destroy the city completely!

Green Racine said...

Been to Kenosha lately? Just last wekend took my daughter tocatch her train. Looked like a wasteland to me, unless you are looking to have lots of Street People and buildings that look like they should be torn down.