High-Speed Rail Madison

Terminus or Through-Route for Madison’s Downtown Station?

» 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.

Intercity Rail Madison Milwaukee

Wisconsin Moves Ahead with Train Purchase Deal, Intent on Connecting Madison with Milwaukee

» Talgo will establish train manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. But state Republicans suggest they’ll oppose rail expansion if it gets in the way of highway spending.

Despite being a marginal player in the world high-speed rail market, Spanish train manufacturer Talgo is hoping to make a big push for orders in  North America. Thanks to a deal it signed with Wisconsin last year, it’s well on its way: The company has agreed to locate a new U.S. plant in Milwaukee, with plans to deliver 125 mph trains to the state for service to Madison by 2013.

If state Republicans gain power, however, the state’s rail efforts could be short-lived.

Under the leadership of outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, the Badger State has been one of the country’s leaders in developing improved rail service. The Governor announced last March that he would move forward with a plan to expand services between Chicago and Milwaukee,and reopen the passenger link to Madison. Future services could be offered to Green Bay. Later in 2009, Mr. Doyle signed a deal with Talgo to buy two 14-car trains for train operations, in exchange for that company’s commitment to locate a new plant within the state.

Wisconsin’s investment was rewarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January, which announced $810 million for the Madison-Milwaukee line, enough to have 79 mph trains operating along the 85-mile line within three years. The corridor would be upgraded to 110 mph by 2015.

Talgo announced this week that it would build its plant in a former automotive facility in Milwaukee, eventually creating about 75 jobs there. The State of Oregon revealed today that it would buy two additional 125 mph 13-car trains for its Eugene-Vancouver services, bringing total Talgo orders to about $85 million from the Wisconsin plant, a significant first step for the ambitious Spanish concern. As of now, the plant will build only Series VIII trainsets, which are fully compliant with Federal Railroad Administration rules and operate using diesel propulsion. This train is not what would be considered a truly high-speed train in other countries.

Yet as an initial response to a desire for increasing rail services, the deal seems like a good one for Wisconsin. Not only will it get new trains, but it will also get manufacturing jobs, which it has been losing for decades.

With Democratic majorities in both the State Assembly and Senate, lawmakers approved the deal with the federal government last month along partisan lines. The GOP suggested that Wisconsin shouldn’t be saddled with the operating costs of the new corridor, which would start at around $7.5 million a year. This line of reasoning is similar to that expressed by Ohio Republicans, who similarly claim to be willing to reject federal funds for improved rail service if the state is asked to subsidize operations costs.

Republican gubernatorial candidate front-runner Scott Walker is taking a hard line against the Milwaukee-Madison project, claiming that he would shut down the corridor “if it takes money away from new-and-improved roads.” Another candidate, Mark Neumann, is also critical of the program, arguing that tax cuts would be a better use of public funds and that “if high speed rail were economically sound it would already have been built by the private sector.”

Democratic candidate Tom Barrett, the Mayor of Milwaukee, is a big supporter of the project as he claims it would serve as an economic stimulus for the troubled state. He also has made the quite legitimate claim that Wisconsin will have already spent $57 million on preliminary construction activity by the time the next governor is sworn in — it doesn’t make much since to pull out once so much money has already been invested.

Both Republicans are currently leading Mr. Barrett in polls in advance of the November election.

One could argue about the specific merits of the Milwaukee-Madison service, but the considerable success of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee — it has the third highest ridership per mile of U.S. intercity rail routes after the Northeast Regional and Capitol Corridor lines — suggests that Wisconsin’s population is well prepared for improved rail operations.

Just as in Ohio, Republican objections in Wisconsin are difficult to take seriously, because they’re incoherent. Why is it problematic for the government to sponsor rail construction when highways aren’t built by the private sector either? Why should roads always be prioritized in state spending, when trains are used by thousands of people each day too? More importantly, why is it that the first serious investment in passenger rail service Wisconsin has seen in decades is immediately greeted with skepticism, while road spending continues apace in the state, at more than $2 billion a year?

Nonetheless, Wisconsin’s rail investments are likely to move forward — the public has demonstrated clear support for the mode over the years, and there have been plenty of Republicans in the state, including former Governor Tommy Thompson, who have been serious proponents of new train services. But the increasingly hysterical GOP fear of investing in transportation projects that aren’t automobile-oriented may come to pose a mounting obstacle, in Wisconsin and beyond.

Image above: Talgo Series VIII Train, from Talgo

Commuter Rail Madison

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