Friday, August 13, 2010

Myths about Madison-Milwaukee rail service - station and train ridership

I've been meaning to write this for some time. It just drives me nuts to see the same myths and misleading information perpetuated in articles and letters to the editor. So this is the first in what will likely be a series of posts about rail, transit, the RTA, and transportation in general.

1. You can drive as fast between these two locations as the train will travel. 

The train will be traveling at 79 mph until 2016, and then will travel at 110 mph. The speed limit on I-94 is 65 mph at the fastest, and then 55 mph for most of the Milwaukee metro area.

Ah, but what about the stops it has to make along the way? Even with those, you will be able to get from downtown Madison to downtown Milwaukee faster than you can drive. It takes me 20 minutes just to get to the interstate from the Capitol, and that's when the traffic isn't bad. As soon as you hit about Brookfield, the traffic often slows to a crawl, even in off-hours. Add in the time it takes to reach downtown Milwaukee, and there is no way you are going to make that trip in less than the 1 hour, 15 minutes they are estimating for the Madison-Milwaukee train trip.

Then there is parking your car in one or both locations. Getting into a parking ramp, getting out of a parking ramp, or just finding a spot can add additional time to the trip. With the train, no need to find parking or wait in line to get in and out.

2. It's cheaper to drive. 

If you are taking your whole family, sure. Just as it is cheaper to drive to Boston, Denver, DC, or Miami, but many people still fly because it is faster and less stressful than driving. (Although the less stressful part is starting to lose, what with the additional security, long wait times, crowded conditions, and frequent delays, but that's another blog post.)

But many people taking the train are doing so alone. People often underestimate the actual cost of driving, because they only look at the cost of gas. If you have ever filled out a mileage reimbursement for work, or deducted your mileage on your taxes, you know that the costs can add up quickly. The federal government is currently using around 50 cents per mile as the cost they will reimburse or allow you to deduct on your taxes. It's 80 miles to Milwaukee according to Google Maps. That means it's going to cost you $40 of wear and tear, gas, depreciation on the car and such, for the trip.

Add in that pesky parking, and the cost of a train ticket is starting to look pretty good. Have you parked for a full day at the Government East ramp next to the Municipal Bldg recently?

The DOT is estimating a one-way ticket will be $22-33 one-way. That's about what a Badger Bus ticket costs, if memory serves me, and they seem to be doing just fine. DOT also says there will likely to monthly passes, multi-ride discounts, etc., bring the single trip price down even more.

3. No one will ride it. 

DOT had to submit an analysis of potential ridership with its federal application. The federal government seems to have been impressed enough with this potential to award Wisconsin $800 million in a very competitive process.

I think the naysayers would be very surprised how many people commute between Madison and Milwaukee every day for work. Or somewhere in between like Watertown or Delafield. I can't tell you how many people I've spoken to who either do this commute themselves, or work with someone that does the commute. Why do these people live so far away? Some are part of a couple where one person works in Milwaukee, and the other in Madison. Some changed jobs and don't want to uproot the family. Some love living in the country, and a long commute is the price they pay. Some are at temporary positions and see no reason to move for a job that may be over in a year or so.

Then there are the business people, state employees, lobbyists, and other assorted categories that travel between Madison and Milwaukee on a regular basis, but not every day. Linking the Madison, the state capital, which also has the largest university and many medical and research facilities, with the largest city is a no-brainer. Again, ask anyone at the UW or any state office how many people travel between those two cities several times per month.

Then there is the fact that many people will enjoy riding the train, being able to get work done, not dealing with stupid drivers and traffic congestion, not needing to look for parking. I know, some cannot believe that there are folks that find driving a pain in the butt, however they exist in fairly large numbers.

Besides, if there are hordes of people going to the Badger games or Summerfest, not to mention any of the other concerts or cultural events, wouldn't you rather have them riding the train, instead of driving home after celebrating at the local taverns and tailgates? I certainly would like to avoid driving home on I-94 after going out in Milwaukee, and I'm sure I am not alone.

The three things that will convince people to not drive (for certain trips) are: time, money, and a pleasant experience. For some people one of these is more important than others. Some people will do anything to save a few bucks, even if it means getting there slower or in a less convenient way. For other people, they don't care how much it costs, as long as it is fast. Still others just hate fighting traffic, and will do almost anything to not have to drive at certain times or to certain places. As pointed out in points # 1 and 2, both time and money can be saved by riding the train. Being able to get an hour's work done instead of being stressed out is a big incentive for many people.

4. The only place that people ride trains between cities is in the northeast.

Simply not true. I don't have the statistic for the west coast, but the train between San Fransisco and LA is pretty popular, and does well financially, as is the train between Seattle and Portland. But let's look closer to home. The Hiawatha between Chicago and Milwaukee, the same train that will be extended to Madison, is so popular that additional cars have been added to the trains. Some business interests even expect the high-speed Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago to lead to increased Chicago workers living in Milwaukee, because commuting will be so convenient. Sound familiar?

Obviously, commuter rail is very popular into and out of Chicago, often from quite far out. Besides the regional commuter trains from the Chicago suburbs, there are five trains a day between St Louis and Chicago - a 5 1/2 hour ride. Many riders on these trains actually commute into one of those two cities from somewhere in between. The IL Service by Amtrak also has three trains between Chicago and  Carbondale, and four trains per day between Chicago and Quincy, IL.

5. There has to be lots of parking near the station.

Sure, some people will chose to drive to the station, but one advantage of a downtown station, especially in Madison is that there are other ways to access the station, and many of the destinations are walking distance from the station. Again, let's think about all those state workers and lobbyists, not to mention lawyers, sales people, office workers, Capitol employees, and consultants. Whether they are doing a daily commute or an occasional visit, many of the offices where they are headed are but a few blocks from the Madison station.

The Capitol Square is a de facto transfer point, with bus connections to virtually every part of the city. Getting to campus is a breeze as well, so researchers, medical personnel, students, faculty, and UW staff can easily walk or jump on a bus for the short connection to campus.

Finally, if people do want to drive, and some will, there is a parking ramp across the street, which will likely be significantly expanded when it is rebuilt. Yes, some consider parking in downtown Madison to be expensive, but many communities of similar size or smaller have far higher parking rates, and often the parking is not as convenient. Many cities do not have city-run parking, but rely on the private market to provide parking as needed at market-rate prices. Parking in a constrained downtown area, such as Madison, is likely to be expensive. We have many ways of getting to the station without taking a private car all the way to downtown, including taking the bus or a cab from parking farther away.

6. Multi-day parking needs to be available across the street from the station.

Again, many train stations, especially in business districts, do not allow any overnight parking. If a traveler wants to take the train to a destination for an overnight or longer stay, they will probably park off-site and either take the bus or a cab to the station. Perhaps Madison will have overnight parking options close by, or maybe the private market will provide that option. Many overnight parking options in other cities put restrictions on the parking, such as not operating 24 hours/day or attended parking, where you may have to wait to get your car.

Many train passengers will only be traveling to Milwaukee and back in one day, so won't need overnight parking. Maybe Madison will provide overnight and multi-day parking in less popular ramps, and then have a shuttle running between them. There are many options, and between the city, DOT, and the private market, I am confident that the demand for parking will be met. It won't be free, but it will be available.

7. People with luggage can't get to the station. People with luggage will find the parking too far away. 

Yes, I have heard this as a concern about the downtown station, presumably from people that think the station should have been at the airport.

Oh, for crying out loud, are you serious? How do people access airplanes in big airports? You often have to park quite a bit farther away than the ramp across from the Madison station will be. Even if the station had been built at the airport, you'd still have to walk about the same distance with your luggage. And suitcases almost all have wheels these days. It's not like passengers are going to have to walk five miles through the desert with 100 lb. backpacks.

If you can't manage with walk from the bus or parking ramp with your luggage, take a cab or get a RentBoy to carry your luggage.

8. The trains are going to cause massive traffic delays.

The new trains will travel through the city at about 30 mph, about the same speed as driving a car, yet they can carry a hundred people or more. Think about all those people driving a car alone, or even with another person, and then think how long it would take for those cars to clear the intersections. The trains will cross intersections in about the time that it takes for a traffic light to cycle, and most cities actually time the lights so that trains cross at the same time as the traffic light is cycling, so little time is lost to cross traffic.

The one intersection where the train crosses the intersection at a diagonal - Blair-John Nolen-Wilson and Willy St, was built to be able to move traffic even when the train was blocking the intersection. Ever wonder why that intersection is so screwed up? It's because of all the weird angles, which allowed drivers to make turns without crossing the tracks. And it's even possible that that horrid intersection will get rebuilt to make it safer and easier to negotiate for all modes of travel. (Just ask bicyclists about that intersection. Everyone's got a story, whether it's a near-miss with an inattentive driver or falling on the tracks when crossing at a bad angle.)

OK, that's enough for now. I'll deal with the financial aspect of the rail at a later date. We'll look at the complaints about the cost of building and maintaining the rail service. Watch for comparisons with road projects in our region, or better yet, start to look for those numbers yourself.

Hint: Myth # 1 is that the gas tax and vehicle registration pays for your roads.