Madison Gets New Transit Authority

Madison Commuter Rail Alternative Map» But how long will it take for it to start building new lines?

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

23 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • An RTA here in the Madison Area of Wisconsin, misnamed the Dane County RTA, is not synonymous with a rail line, at least initially. Indeed, much of the opposition wanted to narrow the issue down to that of having a very limited rail line or not. An RTA’s main focus is on moving people, not on mode. Many proponents in fact want considerable attention to go to alternatives such as shared-ride taxi service, vans, shuttles, small buses, express buses, rapid buses and a downtown multimodal terminal for intercity and local transit. Commuter rail is not necessarily a priority.

    In fact, in the name of Social Justice, first priority should NOT go to connecting commuters from a middle-class town adjacent to Madison to downtown Madison. Madison’s current transit system is the bus, and many people using the bus would be hurt by further gutting the bus system according to the initial plans for the rail line.

    Class bias against trains is a big social justice issue that this blogs does not address fairly. Transit advocates in general may not like auto-centric planning, but rail advocates themselves can be as classist as anyone else.

  • Andy K

    I lived in Madison for 6 months in 1979 as a 12 year old in a car free family while my dad was on sabbatical. At that time, the bus service worked great for us. Reliable, and took us everywhere we needed to go.

    Agree with Susan – it does seem that in many cases, rail is done at the expense of bus service. Rail benefits a different class of people. This is definitely true in Oakland, CA where I live now. Witness projects like the OAC, BART to Warmsprings etc. Meanwhile, AC Transit faces continuing deficits, service cuts, etc.

  • Huricano

    Why does building trains equate to “gutting bus service.” I think that is a charged statement, based on questionable assumptions. Firstly, greater connection with suburbs might increase downtown bus use, leading to expanded service. Secondly, is there any study showing that the construction of commuter lines is done at the expense of transit service to poor urban areas? Maybe in Oakeland? But I’d venture to say that poor residents of Oakland have better service than those of Dallas, or Madison, where there are no commuter lines.
    In fact, there is a lot to be said about increasing general transit use as a way of improving service for poor residents in the long term. As long as transit is only used by the poor it will never have any political weight. So I think any discussion of social justice requires a much more nuanced approach than proposed in post one & two. Of course, i have never been to Madison, so I cannot comment on the particulars. However, I think that construction of transit in general serves social justice considerations, because it moves away from car dependence and its associated socialy stratified forms. Equality should be a consern, but not an obstacle.

  • EngineerScotty

    In most North American cities, transit requires an operational subsidy to run–in other words, the revenue generated from the farebox doesn’t pay for the drivers, the mechanics, and the gas or power, let alone for the administrative overhead. (Or capital costs, for that matter, although those can and do come from funding sources unavailable for operations).

    Given that tax revenues for transit authorities are frequently fixed (or at least don’t vary by level of service), it’s often the case increases in service in one part of town, are coupled with decreases in service somewhere else. In quite a few places, when rail is installed–the result can be a reduction in bus service. And when the new rail line serves the suburbs and the affect bus lines serve the inner city–all sorts of nasty racial and class dynamics get brought in to play, regardless of whether or not the transit agency had any ill intent.

    I don’t know much about Madison–but if it looks like the Dane County RTA is abandoning poor residents close to downtown (many of whom are transit dependent) for wealthier residents further out (many of whom own cars and have the option to drive), there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    (This dynamic, I should note, affects liberal politics in the US in many ways far more than transit. It seems that one major issue which has long affected Democratic party politics is that rich white liberals–for whom things like the environment are major issues–often have different needs and expectations than do poor folk, particularly minorities–who have families to feed and jobs to get to, assuming they have jobs at all, and can’t afford to give a crap about the ozone layer. The only thing these groups have in common is that they don’t like Republicans much….)

  • Andy K

    Nice summary Scotty.

  • EngineerScotty

    I should add that there is a bit of a history of transit authorities in the US serving “nice” neighborhoods with rail and “poor” ones with busses–many in the country, on both sides of the aisle, identify the vehicle technology with different social classes. In some cases, this may be intentional racism–or at least the power brokers providing better service to “their” neighborhoods, while neglecting poorer neighborhoods which are less politically powerful. Los Angeles gets frequently accused of this.

    In other cases, it may well be the case that poorer neighborhoods are simply closer in–and better served with local service not requiring its own ROW; whereas serving distant communities requires a separate right of way to not result in a two-hour ride–the type of right of way goes a long way in determining the vehicle choice.

    When you factor in “transit oriented development” (and urban renewal in general), which usually means upscale rather than affordable housing), often times the poor get the shaft. Again.

    Is this a reason to avoid urban renewal? Probably not–though it does suggest that the best way to help poor people is to help them not be poor.

  • Alurin

    Another factor to keep in mind is pollution. poor urban neighborhoods typically have higher levels of pollution, particularly if car traffic is passing through these neighborhoods between the wealthy suburbs and jobs in the core. So even if rail transit only served suburban commuters, it could be beneficial to poor urban neighborhoods.
    Of course, the DMU proposed for Madison is not going to be as effective at reducing pollution as an electrified service.

  • Pollution comes from buses, too – in New York, there are localized asthma crisis zones around each bus depot. Unfortunately, switching to electrified buses is often too expensive and too out of the box for cash-strapped agencies. Unlike rail, it has none of the pizzazz factor of putting a brand new streetcar line serving downtown and the suburbs.

    DMUs can cause even more localized pollution than buses. In some Toronto suburbs, residents are fighting plans to increase diesel commuter service, demanding that the rail operator electrify the line and provide pollution-free trains.

  • Tim

    There’s not really an urban inner city in Madison. With state government and the University squeezed onto an isthmus, downtown and inner ring neighborhoods are filled either with affluent professionals or students. The poor actually live on Madison’s periphery. One of the two major poor neighborhoods, South Park Street, is slated to get a streetcar to downtown as noted in Yonah’s original post. The other poor neighborhood straddles the Madison/Fitchburg line and can be better served by one borderless agency overseeing transit. The motivation for rail isn’t classism; it’s the fact that no additional road capacity can be constructed when your urban core is hemmed in by two lakes. Moving people (even rich people) off the road network makes sense.

  • EngineerScotty

    Alon–

    How do DMUs (most of which are direct-drive) compare to diesel-electric locomotives or DEMUs, when it comes to pollution?

  • Sean

    Scotty- but poor people suffer the most from environmental pollution. They are the ones that drink dirty water and breath dirty air and don’t have mucha ccess to green spaces. So these “rich environmentalist liberals” are actually looking out for the interests of poor people.

    As for the pollution caused by gas powered busses and trains- that just shows the need for electrified streetcars and trains- which is what European cities have.

  • EngineerScotty

    Sean–

    I’m not saying that the anti-rail poor folk are right (certainly not all the time)–I’m just saying the perception is there. The first commenter, for example, has insisted that social justice issues ought to take precedence over other concerns (presumably including environmental issues and transit efficiency). Being unfamiliar with Wisconsin politics and demographics, I won’t comment on the specifics of the proposal.

    But there’s a whole pack of pissed-off lefties in Portland, who generally despise the various forms of rail transit we have in town (MAX, WES the Streetcar), despite generally supporting environmental agendas. Portland lacks the racial dynamic of a large minority-populated ghetto, but it seems there is a sizeable contingent here in town hate who MAX precisely because it goes to the suburbs, and hate the Streetcar because it currently serves mostly upscale neighborhoods. And when Tri-Met was forced to trim service significantly (partly due to the recession, and partially due to management mistakes), many critics have blamed the trains for their local bus service getting reduced. And these aren’t car-lovers I’m talking about either; these are folks who in many cases don’t even own a car.

    The sad fact of the matter is, land use patterns in most North American cities pretty much ensure transit will require an operating subsidy, at least until gas gets to be $5 a gallon or so. And in that environment, route planning tends to approximate a zero-sum game–as the limit on the transit agency’s operational capacity is the size of its tax base, not the amount of infrastructure or rolling stock it has at its disposal.

  • Few Western European cities have streetcars anymore. In France and Germany, cities replaced their streetcars with buses after WW2, but some have built light rail and subways more recently.

    Even then, the difference between those cities and American cities is that in Europe, as well as in Canada and East Asia, those modes work together. The buses are configured to feed the rail spines; the high-frequency routes get dedicated lanes on which both buses and trams run, and cities invest not just in bus-to-rail conversion but also in off-board fare collection and low-floor equipment. What those cities don’t do is put one electrified transit line disjoint from the rest of the system.

    I don’t know what the comparative pollution levels of DMUs and loco-hauled trains are.

  • Cameron Slick

    If they can get a system started quickly that could reach to Watertown or Portage, it could make the added expense and time for the Twin Cities HSR line. By continuing on the ex-Milwaukee Road mainline from Portage to Columbus & Watertown, the fastest possible trip from Chicago & Milwaukee to St. Paul could be achieved in well under 5.5 hours, the current target speed.

    But Madison wouldn’t have to be left out anymore than they’ve already decided to be. Since they’ve decided in a geographically rational way to have their station at the airport instead of downtown (a near geographic impossibility from an operating standpoint), how much more difficult would it to take the Commuter Train to Watertown or Portage?

    As a Twin Cities resident, I’d like access to Madison, but the place many of us go to is Chicago, and ridership between the Twin Cities & Chicago will suffer more than the extra riders generated in Madison. That is not to say that there shouldn’t be trains operating from Chicago & Milwaukee into downtown Madison.

  • Nathanael

    “particularly minorities–who have families to feed and jobs to get to, assuming they have jobs at all, and can’t afford to give a crap about the ozone layer.”

    You mean who *think* they can afford to *not* give a crap about the ozone layer. Obviously major environmental catastrophes hurt everyone, but they usually hurt the poor the worst (they’re the ones who die from the pollution, get drowned by the sea level rise, get fried by the radiation due to no ozone layer, starve first in any environmentally-induced famine, etc….)

    Thankfully there is a movement called “environmental justice” intend to make sure that projects don’t throw all the environmental bad effects on the poor….

  • Nathanael

    I really hope Madison gets their local rail up and running (the isthmus makes rail a no-brainer here, the only questions are stop placement and which directions to extend in first).

    I hope Milwaukee gets its streetcar going too.

    At that point the four major conurbations on the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Twin Cities corridor will all have fixed-guideway local transit, which will improve the experience for anyone visitng one of the others immensely…. and so make the HSR more popular and more successful. (Better to have the local connections in place *before* the long-distance ones, though you can do it the other way around too.)

  • Thankfully there is a movement called “environmental justice” intend to make sure that projects don’t throw all the environmental bad effects on the poor….

    Less thankfully, the mainstream environmental movement treats the environmental justice movement like a fly in its ointment.

  • EngineerScotty

    You mean who *think* they can afford to *not* give a crap about the ozone layer. Obviously major environmental catastrophes hurt everyone, but they usually hurt the poor the worst (they’re the ones who die from the pollution, get drowned by the sea level rise, get fried by the radiation due to no ozone layer, starve first in any environmentally-induced famine, etc….)

    We’re probably splitting hairs here, but yes. At any rate, when you are worried about immediate threats, like putting food on the table, paying the rent, and the dudes on the corner packing heat–more abstract issues like global warming, or even pollution from the diesel busses running down the street, take a back seat.

    There’s a reason, of course, that most environmentalists in the US seem to be upper-middle class (or wealthier) white folks–which leads to the other problem you note–environmental solutions that fail to benefit (or even adversely impact) minority and lower-income communities.

    Certainly, I don’t blame the poor for an inadequate attention to environmental issues, were I poor, and the TV telling me that the reason I just lost my job is because it got moved to a country where the factory can belch all the filth into the air that it wants to–I might be tempted to blame the greens for my plight, as opposed to the fat cats who made the decision in order to further line the pockets. Which is precisely WHY the TV would be telling me it was all the greens’ fault.

    Amazing how it works, no?

  • No, the pollution from the buses and cars running down the streets is a serious issue for inner city community activists. The environmental justice movement has railed against destruction of low-income neighborhoods to make way for freeways, disproportionate placement of toxic waste in minority neighborhoods, unsafe mining practices such as mountaintop removal, and air pollution disproportionately affecting the poor.

    The people who blame the greens are typically not inner city residents, but the middle class. People who have jobs at polluting factories tend to be unionized and make above-average incomes – e.g. tire workers’ median income is slightly higher than the local median for an entire household, and auto workers’ average income is close to twice the mean household income.

  • ardecila

    Doesn’t the geography of Madison preclude the sort of “the sky is falling!” bus-service cuts that everybody’s wailing about? The city’s on a narrow isthmus. Even if bus service is cut, many people will still be within walking distance of the train.

  • Downtown is on a narrow isthmus. The rest of the city isn’t.

  • Nathanael

    It seems clear how the system should be built; make a rail line running through the isthmus, at *high frequency all day long*, and convert some of the direct bus lines to the isthmus into lines linking at hubs outside the isthmus to the *high frequency* rail line. Done properly this could improve the reliability of service and allow rail to strictly replace bus services, with nobody’s area getting frequency cuts.

    How many along-the-isthmus lines are needed to provide full isthmus coverage? Just one, or maybe three?

  • You’re forgetting one key link: an extension to one of the rail lines to the northeast of the city, with a cross-platform transfer to a future Chicago-Minneapolis HSR station. There’s no reason to put this station in Portage, but the I-94/I-39 and US-151/I-39 intersections and the airport are reasonable locations, and the city should choose now and send light rail to one of them.

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