Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Inert Politics and Highway Building Starve Transit

It's not well-known that studies and plans for modern rail connections statewide are gathering dust on the shelves of government planners even as gasoline prices make better transit a matter of personal and social survival.

Here is a link to the details of existing high-speed rail plans for Wisconsin, and how that system could be joined to a Midwestern rail grid hubbed in Chicago with links to St. Louis, Detroit and other cities.

Wisconsin could have better rail connections statewide, but it chooses to commit $1.9 billion rebuilding and expanding I-94 from Milwaukee to Chicago - - gaining no significant improvement in commuting times for motorists - - and making no start on the commuter rail line proposed in the same corridor.

It isn't a lack of money that prevents Wisconsin from obtaining better rail services, whether in cities or connecting them.

That $1.9 billion I-94 no-rail highway project is part of a $6.5 billion regional plan that includes no transit, but 120 miles of new lanes across seven counties.

Rail is stymied in Wisconsin and our southeastern area by the lack of political will - - and this extends from state government to county courthouses: no one will lead because the highway lobby is too strong and the status quo, until recently, had allowed The SUV To Be King.

Along with Cheap Air Fares.

No more.

State government should operate major rail lines as it operates highways because transportation is a public service and responsibility.

A portion of the gasoline and other fuel taxes should be dedicated to transit, in part because transit spurs economic development along its routes, and surrounding stations, including housing and commercial growth.

And we have to have a reasonable conversation in this state about transportation and taxes.

If Denver can launch a growing state-of-the-art 122-mile light and commuter rail system with a financial package that includes an eight-county sales tax of 4 cents on a ten-dollar purchase, why can't we?

The Denver financing scheme also funds 18 miles of rapid bus lines and 21,000 new parking spaces. Something for everyone. It's a package, and it serves all the public, not just motorists.

Minneapolis figured this out. Charlotte and Portland and Baltimore, and on and on, so the states and federal government can do the same when it comes to connecting cities, too.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett likes Denver's rail initiative, but he can't get County Executive Scott Walker to split $91.5 million in available federal funds to get started on downtown trolleys and more extensive express buses.

Locked into the old paradigm and using the city as a political punching bag, Walker says "no" to the rail component.

Talk radio laps that up, at the public's expense, and Walker can put it in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign ads, but what about the rest of the community left with stalemate, dwindling bus service, rising fares - - the burdens of a dismissed citizenry.

There should be modern train service in Milwaukee. We have an InterModal station. Let's have it live up to its name and promise.

And there should be passenger rail through Milwaukee to Green Bay and Madison. There should be stops along the way, with local rail or modern buses moving to and from stations.

Getting from the planning for rail to construction and operations has never been a high enough priority locally and statewide, but should be now.

Cities and other communities that are connected and criss-crossed by modern transit will flourish in an era of rising gasoline costs.

Waiting until gas goes to $10-a-gallon to get started on 21-century transit, including rail, would further stress the economy, diminish our cities, and make a mockery of democracy



Skip said...

Just as a side note, expanding intercity rail may require more money than we thought back in 2002 or whenever it was that the study was done to look at bringing Amtrak service to Madison. The nation's railways are congested:

It looks like some major infrastructure investments are needed.

Anonymous said...

You have nailed it. A lack of politcal will, not to mention imagination and curiousity. Plus a vigorous disinformation campaign over the airwaves. Mark Belling (an appropriate last name, no?): "The idea that light rail promotes economic development is a myth." Yeah, whatever you say, Mark.

I do think our media could do a better job. Wouldn't you think there would be a box (with lots of links to articles) on the Journal Sentinel website, perhaps titled "Milwaukee's Transit Crisis?" I have never seen a local TV station delve into this issue. I know TMJ4 has begun to look into the bus sysyem. That's very good. But what about exploring the possibilities that have been proposed locally (remember the Cudahy plan?), or showing viewers things that other cities are doing to improve transit, whether with buses or trains?