After several years spent conducting an alternatives analysis for a new transit project but failing to establish a revenue source, Dane County, Wisconsin agreed to establish a Regional Transit Authority last week that would hold the powers of taxation and eminent domain. The new RTA is chartered with the goal of improving transit and potentially building a commuter rail line between Madison’s center city and the northeastern and southwestern suburbs. Its leaders, however, will first put a regional 1/2¢ sales tax up for a vote next fall — an optional move that is designed to build community support for the local transportation project.
Madison, a university town and the state capital, has a relatively compact downtown core situated on a half mile-wide isthmus between Lake Mendota to the north and Lake Monona to the south. Local transit ridership, at 60,000 a day during the school year and 30,000 daily during the summer on Metro buses, is already more significant than, say, Tampa’s. That’s because of the city’s tight, corridor-like layout, which would allow this medium-size city (it only has about 230,000 people) to generate a large number of transit riders if a fixed-guideway line sliced through the the city’s core, running from the northeast suburbs to the west. A project of this scope would serve a large percentage of the metropolitan area’s population in one fell swoop, and the creation of the central section through downtown would allow for future extensions to other populated areas north, south, and east.
A light rail or commuter rail project for the city was studied in both 1992 and 1998; both reports demonstrated that the metropolitan area would be a feasible testing grounds for such a line. But the city and state were never able to move ahead with the proposal.
With renewed interest, the county conducted an early look at transit alternatives in 2007, submitting an analysis to the Federal Transit Administration in 2008 with the intention of moving forward with preliminary engineering. Transport 2020, the study group, selected a 16-mile locally preferred alternative, which would have included a commuter rail line as indicated in the map above between East Towne and Sun Prairie, via downtown and the University of Wisconsin. The University is out of parking space and is campaigning strongly for the new line.
The route would follow an existing railroad right-of-way, which would allow the system to avoid significant land acquisition costs and also provide the city more choices in vehicle selection, since the trains would not have to run in any street, as some proposed alternatives would have suggested. The railroad right-of-way is slightly less convenient for the inner-city core, which could have been provided with a more central streetcar service, but all areas on the isthmus would be within about a 1/2 mile from a station. In addition, the railroad right-of-way ensures faster commutes since trains will not have to compete with automobile traffic.
The project’s construction costs would range between $233 and 285 million in 2008 dollars, including the acquisition of eleven DMU rail vehicles, the completion of 17 stations, and the paving of park-and-ride lots in the outlying suburbs. Trains would come 70 times a day on weekdays. The line would be mostly double-tracked, with the exception of a half-mile section through the University of Wisconsin that, due to right-of-way limitations, would be reduced to incapacitating one-track service. This limitation might be acceptable for a city the size of Madison, but with a strong university and government population, ridership could grow quickly — especially because of the city’s almost ideal layout for transit, which will put a large number of people within waking distance of convenient transport.
For the longer term, the county is also planning regional bus service, an electric streetcar service through downtown on South Park Street, and extensions of the commuter rail line to the airport and to the City of Fitchburg.
But the failure of the region to establish a governing mechanism or funding system, both required for federal grants, forced the county to retract its FTA request, pending future action. Thus the interest in creating the new Regional Transit Authority.
The Wisconsin legislature was required to provide the area with the right to move forward with a local transit district, which it did last year, leading to last week’s vote on the creation of the RTA. The organization will have control over an area slightly larger than the boundaries of the Madison Metropolitan Planning Organization. From the start, the RTA will have no funds and will have to rely on planning aid from Metro transit, which it will likely take over if citizens of the transit area articulate their interest in better public transportation in the vote on the half-cent sales tax next year. That election would clear the way for RTA to expand into advanced rail planning immediately. RTA was not required to submit the proposal to referendum but will do so with an assumption of victory, in the interest of building community excitement and support for the project.
With the sales tax, the RTA will be able to afford 25% of the project; the commuter rail line would be built after the federal government agrees to a 50% commitment and the state assents to sponsoring 25% of costs. With a project of this size and for a city with already high demand for transit, the FTA seems likely to push for the go-ahead.
Image above: Potential Madison Commuter Rail Project, Alternative 5, from Transport 2020