» Though Governor Doyle has selected a downtown station for the Milwaukee-Madison rail line, proponents of other alternatives suggest there’s a better way.
In the gospel of intercity rail planning, the need to locate stations downtown is one of the commandments. Unlike airplanes, trains can get you right to the center-city. That kind of direct service encourages transit-oriented development and the creation of dense neighborhoods.
Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) announced earlier this month that he would locate the terminus of the state’s new east-west intercity rail line just two blocks from the capitol and just adjacent to Madison’s central business district. The 85-mile line will connect Milwaukee with Madison in 75 minutes by 2013 thanks to an $823 million grant from the federal government and a commitment to purchasing several new Talgo trainsets from the state government.
At first glance, the selection of the downtown site, to be located near the Monona Terrace convention center, fits in with the elementary rules of rail planning quite well — especially when compared to the other station possibilities, at the Kohl Center sports complex west of downtown, the Yahara area northeast of downtown, and the Dane County Airport, five miles from the core.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has recently suggested creating an intermodal center, uniting urban bus and future commuter rail offerings, at Monona, despite the limited space available there because of the existing built-up downtown and tight confines next to the lake shore.
If the intercity rail project were to terminate in Madison, the Monona location for the city’s station would be justifiable. But complicating the Governor’s choice is the fact that Wisconsin intends to run four daily round-trips to Minnesota’s Twin Cities in addition to the six round-trips making the Milwaukee-Madison connection. (Some of both services will originate in Chicago.) Because trains arriving in downtown Madison from both the Twin Cities and Milwaukee will come in from the east, a Monona Station would require trains making trips between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities to reverse direction in Madison, simply avoid stopping in Wisconsin’s capital altogether, or stop somewhere else along the way through the city.
Amtrak typically earmarks twenty minutes to reverse trains. If it followed international convention, it could do so in five minutes or less; Talgo’s Series 8 train, to be used for Wisconsin’s service, is perfectly able to do as much as long as the trains have drivers at both ends. But the American rail operator seems unlikely to make provisions for such efficiency.
At the moment, the state DOT will probably opt to build a second station at the airport, nowhere near downtown. That possibility will ramp up costs substantially, reduce the number of trains entering downtown Madison, and serve a relatively minor airport that will generate few rail rides. Governor Doyle indicated last year that the airport stop was his priority, but his recent decision seems to have been influenced by local support for a downtown stop.
For over a year, urban planning consultant Barry Gore has been a major proponent of an alternate solution — placing the intercity rail station at the Yahara location, about a mile and a half outside of downtown, located where the corridors from the Twin Cities and Milwaukee intersect. This would allow all trains to stop in central Madison. Mr. Gore argues that the state’s own analysis of the station possibilities indicate construction costs would be a third as expensive as for Monona and that ridership would only be slightly lower.
Even more promising (or problematic, depending on one’s perspective) is the fact that the Yahara location is surrounded by acres of developable space ripe for new construction. Earlier this year, before the governor made his independent decision to pick the Monona stop, the city’s downtown coordinating committee unanimously voted to support Mr. Gore’s station concept, citing his argument that it could be used to expand the center city northeast.
The state DOT has argued that the limited space at Yahara will impede trains from stopping, but Mr. Gore has provided compelling evidence to the contrary.
Madison is just a through-station along a longer route; forcing trains to run stub-ended into a terminal and then back out in order to continue on their journeys would be an impediment to the system’s functioning. Splitting service by stopping some trains at Monona and others at the airport would be confusing to passengers and double station construction and operations expenses.
But the Yahara stop, as good of a compromise as it may seem, still faces a potentially insurmountable obstacle: it isn’t located downtown. Its distance from the center city will limit the number of people walking out of the station, thereby reducing the system’s usefulness. The University of Wisconsin’s location on the other side of downtown is unfortunate, to say the least.
One solution is to build the commuter rail line the city’s been discussing for years, connecting the Yahara area directly with downtown and the university; another option is to upgrade bus service substantially between the destinations. The city would benefit from improved local transit in place and a new station serving all trains heading through Madison.