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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

High-Speed Rail and Race Relations

Scott Walker is looking out for inner-city residents

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Last week, Jim Doyle asked Washington for $519 million dollars to use to upgrade transit in Wisconsin. Would that money go for busses in the inner-city? Transit for the disabled? Bus ticket vouchers for homeless shelters?

The answer is none of the above. The $519 million Doyle requested (as part of the federal stimulus package) would go toward the construction of a "high-speed" rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. In this case, "high-speed" is a misnomer, as the trains on the proposed line would travel at just over 100 miles per hour, and it would still take one hour, seven minutes to go from downtown Milwaukee to Madison. Um, not quite Madison. The western terminus of the proposed line would be the Dane County Airport, located approximately 5 miles northeast of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

When considering the "trip time", a benchmark that measures door-to-door total trip time between destinations, one has to factor in (1) getting to the train station in Milwaukee or the airport in Madison, and (2) getting to your final destination from the train station in Milwaukee or the Madison airport. Currently, even in medium traffic, the trip by automobile from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Madison takes only one hour and thirty minutes. To gain the twenty-three minutes, one has to travel to and park at the Milwaukee train station or the Dane County Airport. Then the traveler would need to take a cab or a bus to their final destination. No can seriously believe that this "not-exactly-high-speed-rail" line would make the trip faster than one could drive it in an automobile.

Then you have to consider the cost. Even with high gas prices, the trip between Milwaukee and Madison is relatively cheap. Train tickets, if we can use Amtrak's Hiawatha line for comparison, cost upwards of $20 each way. That's a full tank of gas for a V-8 pickup truck at today's prices. Of course, parking and destination transportation need to be figured in. Even adding only $10 for these costs, the trip is far more expensive than it would be to simply drive the seventy-five miles. Even the Badger bus service is cheaper at $19 each way, or $17.50 if you order your tickets online.

Democratic politicians and rail activist groups shout loudly that mass transit is the panacea that will save our crumbling inner cities by bringing the workers to the jobs. Exactly what jobs would the people taking a train from Milwaukee to Madison be employed in? One position jumps to mind- that of local Milwaukee area politician, making the daily trip to the capital. Other than that, what can we expect the ridership numbers for this line to be? On estimate, made by "authorities" and referenced in a JS Online article, puts ridership at 1.08 million riders per year "within a couple of years after service starts". For comparison, the Amtrak Hiawatha line served 766,167 riders in 2008- and that line runs to Chicago, a city that is simply not comparable to Madison with regard to jobs, attractions, and the inconvenience that driving into the city presents.

This posting will not delve into the fact that the line will almost certainly need ongoing taxpayer funding to reach the break-even point, or that $519 million would be the final cost of building the line. These are facts that one can assume simply by looking at Amtrak's current yearly deficit, and by examining the financials of almost any government project.

The most important question is this- Where are the central-city politicians on this issue, and are they blatantly selling out their constituents to support the Democratic rail transit pipe-dream? Somehow, a rapid-transit bus system that would run down Fond Du Lac Avenue is seen as less useful to inner-city residents than Mayor Barret's trolley cars, which run in a three-mile loop downtown and don't come anywhere near the inner city. How can a fixed-rail trolley system serving white collars and tourists downtown be supported by black politicians over a bus system targeted directly at the inner city? Why is Scott Walker the one who is seen as indifferent to Milwaukee's black population?

Simple- inner city politicians don't care about their constituents, and Democrats really don't care about the underprivileged residents of the central city. Democrats care only about forcing lifestyle changes on the population, and if the inner-city is left behind, so be it. The important thing is to get those first rails laid.

To be fair, the "high-speed" train between Milwaukee and Madison would serve some residents of Milwaukee's North Side. The politicians in the central-city would be able to ride the new choo-choo to Madison- subsidized, of course, by the taxpayer.