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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Doyle's High-Speed Train Deserves Consideraton

Students and commuters would benefit

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There is much to be admired about Europe. Fine French cheeses, Bavarian sausages and refreshing Belgian ales, for example. Then again, we have all those things right here in Wisconsin, and we also don't elevate David Hasselhoff to the level of demi-god.

Wisconsin: 1, Europe: 0.

Still, it seems that elected officials are always jetting off to the "old country," either on trade missions or in search of a panacea of some sort of another to aid our stateside economic or social problems. Wisconsin's Gov. Doyle has been racking up frequent flier miles on just such missions, and his latest trip to Spain convinced him that what we need is a high-speed train connecting Milwaukee to Madison.

Now, considering that it takes little more than an hour to drive between the cities, I initially questioned the need for this transportation option. There are obvious and numerous objections to spending $500 million on this.

First is the matter of convenience. Let us suppose that my brother, a resident of Madison, in a highly unlikely fictional bout of generosity, suddenly offers to repay a portion of the money he owes me, and wants to throw in lunch as a thank you. I would ordinarily just spend about 20 bucks in gas to drive there and back. Even if the high-speed train were available as an option, the fare would likely be more expensive, plus, once I got there, I would have no means of getting around the city. Not very convenient.

The second objection would be the immense cost of the undertaking. $500 million dollars is the proposed price tag. Even if the money is coming from the largesse of the Obama stimulus cash, no doubt everyone can think of wiser, more urgent uses for this money.

But on the other hand, why not? There are scads of students who travel back and forth between Madison and Milwaukee, and many people who commute daily for work also. The local bus services which operate Milwaukee-Madison routes run at near-capacity, so the potential ridership does exist.

Also, as fuel prices continue, inevitably, to rise, commuters will be using mass transit in greater numbers in the coming years out of economic necessity.

Finally, there is the potential environmental benefit. If ridership numbers meet expectations, there would be many less vehicles emitting exhaust into the air.

Still, for all that, the Milwaukee-Madison high-speed train, as a stand-alone project, still doesn't make a lot of sense, unless it is viewed in its proper context. What Doyle is ultimately envisioning is not just a high-cost, high-tech showpiece connecting towns 70 miles apart. Rather, it will be a component of a larger, regional rail system, connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minnesota's Twin Cities. Viewed against this backdrop, Doyle's controversial and bold proposal makes good long-term economic sense. Bold actions are never without their naysayers, but in this case, the critics need to look at the larger picture.