Monday, September 15, 2008

Why Milwaukee Is A Rail-Free Zone

I wrote a piece for Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads section that tells the story about why Milwaukee is about the only major US city without an urban rail transit system.

We're behind even smaller cities like Norfolk, VA.

Heck - - I was in Kenosha the other day, where people were lining up for the trolley.

The map and graphic with the Crossroads piece enlarge nicely and show the route, destinations, and nearby neighborhoods not served, or available as logical extensions that are commonplace in cities not under the yoke of right-wing talk radio, spineless politicians and anti-urban suburban 'leaders.'


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Rowen,
Thanks for pointing out in your Sunday article all the steps light rail has gone through over the years and why it has failed. It was a good reminder of why we don't have it here in Milwaukee: unjustifiable high cost and inflexible to changing route patterns. Let's listen to Scott Walker and his idea for increased expressed bus service. Thanks again.

James Rowen said...

The route inflexibility argument is a canard. And so is the cost argument. It was 20% of the cost of the total package.

We are in the early stages of spending 20 times more money on the freeway system than the starter light rail line.

What about the costs there?

Costs which do not take into account maintenance, plowing, enforcement and the inevitable replacement - - all with our taxes.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Rowen,

It is fascinating to hear the perspective of one whom was close to some of the decision makers when we (the metro area) were in the midst of making decisions about light rail and transit. It is too bad that Ament was for transit and Walker is against it. Sure would be nice if it would be the other way around.

Thank you for articulating some of the fallacious arguments against public transit infrastructure investments.

I intend on continuing to contact my elected officials (state assembly, state senate) to let them know that many of us are for more transportation options. I also let them know that I am willing to pay the additional sales tax because it is an investment in community assets (e.g. transit).


Patrick Bacon

Did you see the article in Chicago Tribune which addressed the problems associated with leasing key community assets? Here is a link to it,,0,6786305.story. I would like this story to be addressed by local media thoroughly in this time before the sales tax referendum.

Anonymous said...

Well, yes. Why not re-fight the light rail battle? That's as much as the Walker supporters can do. Re-hash, then re-hash the hash already re-hashed.

The marvel of it all is that in once thoroughly cost-effective Milwaukee, the most studious of proposals goes down - or falls victim to endless bickering.

James Rowen said...

To Patrick: Thanks. I had not seen that story, but will post it.

Anonymous said...

I greatly enjoyed your article in the paper, and I hope you keep writing about the transit issues we are having.

Transit is necessary for the growth and strength of Milwaukee County. People don't realize that transit - even if they do not use it - benefits them.

I've added you to my blogroll. Thank you!

James Rowen said...

Thanks, Lane, I appreciate that.

James Rowen said...

From Rick Murphy, via email:

Mr. Rowen's writing on rail in Milwaukee:

Important points, well

Having ridden the excellent and very well-patronized light rail transit (LRT) lines in Minneapolis, St. Louis and some cities out west, it's astounded and dismayed me that my old home town seems determined to remain in the transportation dark ages.

Is it just the obstructionism of right-wing radio talk show hosts and people like George Watts, or is there some greater cultural neanderthalism at work?

Interesting that Mr. Watts was mentioned. Not only did he make
clearly-racist remarks (as if "those people" couldn't use cars to perpetrate their evils in the suburbs,) but he loved to evoke memories of the later, deteriorating days of Milwaukee's streetcar system. "Who
would want those noisy, clanking, uncomfortable trolleys back?"

(Anyone who's ridden modern LRT knows what a silly comparison that is.)

One big problem: "Putting public funds into highways is a good, worthy investment. Doing so for rail is a subsidy... a nasty, socialistic thing!"

Billions can be put into highway projects and no one bats an eyelash, but try to devote a fraction of that to a rail project and the banshees start wailing. Years ago,

I had a radio encounter with a
Milwaukee Co. GOP official who was railing against LRT (pun intended.)

He challenged me: "How many of these LRT projects you so admire are making money?" I countered: "If you expected the roads to make a profit, you'd be tossing a $20 bill into a toll booth every time you drove to the corner grocery store!"

He changed the subject instantly,
with no come-back.

A falsehood: "Why bother with LRT?
Buses are just as good!"

It's been amply demonstrated in city after city that many folks who wouldn't consider riding a bus will take rail.

And in every city that's
installed LRT, overall transit ridership (including connecting bus lines) has risen dramatically.

Rail vehicles have shown to have a
longevity of up to fifty years; buses rarely last longer than twenty.

Labor costs are a significant cost in transit; one operator can run a
train of several LRT cars, each with a capacity far above that of a bus.

Also, unlike buses, LRT attracts real estate development that
usually more than makes up for the cost of building the LRT.

Another problem in Milwaukee: Paul Weyrich, an eloquent spokesman for
rail transit, has made the point that every city now enjoying LRT has had a champion for the cause in the form of a local elected official.

Former mayors Zeidler and Norquist certainly qualified, but it seems
Milwaukee needs a new "champion."

A few years ago, it was suggested that Milwaukee reinvent the wheel by installing a "guided electric bus" system, a technology which fell flat on its face when it was tried in France.

Why propose it for Milwaukee?

Perhaps it was thought that if it didn't run on rails, Mssrs. Belling and Sykes wouldn't oppose it.

The current mayor's proposal for a downtown streetcar line isn't a bad one, but it's not enough. The Milwaukee area needs more.

Jim mentions the golden opportunity that lies in the available old Milwaukee Road
right of way that runs through the Menominee River valley and West
Allis, out to the western suburbs.

In addition to the important
origin/destination sites he mentioned, such a line would encourage and support development in the valley, and would connect with crosstown buses on 16th, 27th, 35th and other streets.

Another golden opportunity
is the old Chicago & North Western right of way that runs north from

LRT on that route would serve the east side, UWM, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay and could veer north to reach Brown Deer and Mequon.

Both of these lines would have "park & ride" lots for motorists coming from
more distant points.

Opposition from Waukesha County?

To heck with 'em!

Have the western line terminate at the county line. Experience in other cities suggests that, once they see and experience LRT in action, they'll be anxious to
have the line extended westward.

On my most recent trip from downtown Milwaukee to Madison, I left at roughly 4:15, well before the peak of rush hour. All the way from downtown to the Waukesha County line, I never exceeded 5-10 mph on the "expressway" (and there was no Brewers game or construction to blame.)

Do Milwaukee area folks want to live with that forever?

The irony struck me that, from downtown into Wauwatosa, I-94 is on top of or alongside the right of way of the old high-speed "rapid transit," an early form of LRT.

This is progress?

Rick Murphy