Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In This Cold Weather, Imagine Commuting On Modern Trains

Had the region's light rail system not been killed in the planning stages in 1997, Milwaukee workers, visiting conventioneers, and commuters from Waukesha County, including students from UW-M, could be riding modern trains instead of skating down slippery highways and icy sidewalks as they head for their destinations.

And had that system been built, the fight over the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line would have been over long ago, with the line either operating or getting ready to go.

We'd have relearned the lessons lost when Milwaukee's trolleys and the great Inter-Urban system from Oconomowoc to Chicago were torn out to make way for the automobile only.

And both new systems would have worked together to funnel people to and from Mitchell airport, using the new Inter-Modal station downtown, then west through the Menonomee Valley, with service on the drawing board should UW-M get its research park built at the County grounds, not far from the Zoo and the hospital complex.


There was no political will on the part of then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, which was followed by the pension-fund implosion of then-Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament, which was followed by the inspiration-free, risk-averse, talk radio-controlled anti-rail incumbent Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker...and voila! - - Milwaukee remains the largest rail-free (save for Amtrak to Chicago) community in the country.

And we wonder why urban sprawl still eats away at the Milwaukee job market?

Why housing proliferates on farm fields and suburban edges throughout the region?

Why those areas are pushing for Lake Michigan water diversions, along with more highways and interchanges - - even $25 million for an interchange to serve a privately-owned Pabst Farms shopping mall that still lacks local design approval?

Milwaukee is landlocked by a special, 1955 law, hemming in its population.

Without modern transit in the city, and with connections to its neighbors, Milwaukee's growth is stifled - - so a lack of rail is more than an inconvenience on a cold winter day.


Jim Bouman said...

Three weeks in Thailand--visiting with family living there and enjoying a bit of urban exploration mixed with episodes of trekking/eating/swimming-snorkeling/eating/ laying around on the beach/eating --ended this morning with this cold wintry slap in the face.

Bangkok is a city so alive and bustling and full of immigrants that three "Lonely Planet" guidebooks (dated '04, '05 and '06) serially estimated population 7.7 million, then 9 million and finally 10.5 million). The Thais and lots of immigrants all seem to be getting along quite peacefully.

And they have a marvelous, brand new, beautiful, air-conditioned subway. It needs 300,000 riders a day to cover costs, including amortization of construction debt. After three years the ridership is only at 190,000, barely covering operating costs.

What's their solution? How will Bangkok get out of this horrific, misbegotten mess?

They are going to do what needs to be done: expand the existing routes, add new routes, send those tracks farther and farther in new directions. It is still a new and relatively small system. The trains were often full when we rode them, indicating that those who had access--that is, lived within a quick walk or cab ride--used it. Those in different regions of the sprawling (you ain't seen sprawl 'til you've seen Bangkok sprawl) city will use it when it arrives in their area. As it expands, every user will have a larger range of options on the list of destinations.

That's the way mass transit works. It never pays for itself on day one, or even in decade one.

The planners have done a good job of phasing construction and planning for the monumental capital expenditures. The Thais in Bangkok already have a semi-disfunctioning transportation "system": nearly a million motor scooters, hundreds of thousands of cabs and Tuk-tuks (three wheeled, noisy, open-air vehicles a little less costly than cabs, but useful for someone with a lot of groceries to carry home), buses and private cars. And they are choking on the air pollution.

The Thais I saw and met are a pleasingly gracious people. In spite of the congestion and delays, there is never any of the kind of manic blasting away on the horn found in most other busy cities. They sit in traffic, sweating and breathing through surgical masks, then move when the traffic moves.

The automobile based system is being clobbered by an astonishing rise in the cost of fuel. Eighteen months ago diesel fuel and gasoline cost 7 Baht per liter; today it is 32 Baht per liter. That is about $4 per gallon when you do the currency exchange math--thirty
Thai Baht to the dollar.

Thai working people typically put in 11 hours a day and usually work a six or seven day week. Typical wages for a maintenance worker or cook is about 4,500 Baht/month; 12,500/month for a skilled office worker.

So there is not a lot of money in a typical family for transportation. Yet, the Thai economy continues to grow; political leadership and professional planners know that growth as well as control of pollution and congestion will be accomplished only with good, fast, efficient and inexpensive transportation. (I never waited longer than four minutes for a subway train.

And, there's something quite appealing about the hard infrastructure of a subway. One doesn't need to rebuild the whole thing every thirty years at overwhelming and unsustainable cost. The Bangkok subway tracks and tunnels are built to last, they will be there a hundred years from now. The rolling stock will endure just as long. Bangkok's planners know from experience they've studied at the Paris Metro, the London Tube, New York's Subway, the MTA in Boston: Long term, a subway's infrastructure costs decline.

Forty years after the construction of 38 miles of I-94 south of Milwaukee, it is said to need a complete re-construction. And in another thirty or forty years, during which it will have been serially re-paved--with petroleum-based asphalt--it'll be torn up and reconstructed again.

Will somebody please send Mark Belling and Scott Walker over there on a fact-finding mission. If they don't like what they see, maybe they'll see an opportunity and decide to stay there to fire up the Thai people (as well as all the refugees they seem to allow in) with some blasts of anti-mass transit flame-throwing.

And the Thai people will smile sweetly, thank them for their insights, and just keep on riding their wonderful ever-expanding subway.

BillSell said...

Jim Bouman, Glad you had a nice visit to Bangkok. Welcome home, where our main mode of transportation, the automobile/truck combo, has never paid its own way and continues to suck up major tax dollars while alternatives get kicked back to the gutter.