Friday, August 27, 2010

Updates and tidbits on Madison-Milwaukee rail

Last Thursday was the monthly Long Range Transportation Planning Committee meeting. The Wisconsin DOT had promised an update and opportunity to discuss the project at each of our meetings, but they didn't show in July.

Fortunately, the August meeting was much more productive on this front. Paul Trombino, Divisions Operations Director at WisDOT and the point person on the decision to cancel the station in Oconomowoc, came to the meeting a little after 6 PM. He had been delayed by some follow-up work on the Oconomowoc decision. (Was he perhaps being held hostage in his Hill Farms office?) He gave us far more details than we had had in the past, and was very forthcoming in answering questions. This was a great improvement over our disappointment at the no-show in July.

Here's what we learned:

The DOT will own the Madison station. They will also operate the station. This means that the City does not have to budget for the maintenance and operations of the station. This had been a very big question at the July meeting, and neither the DOT nor new mayoral aide Chris Klein - formerly executive assistant to DOT Frank Busalacchi - knew whether the City would be responsible for paying these costs.

Passenger rail runs will not be delayed by freight trains. This is a problem for many Amtrak routes, as freight lines have priority in use of the tracks, and passenger trains often have to wait for freight trains to slowly pass through or maneuver onto sidings before the passenger trains can pass. This will not be the case for the Chicago-Madison trains, and there will be on-time targets that will hold freight lines responsible for making sure the passenger service can get through. This is very important, because freight trains will indeed be using the same tracks as the passenger service.

Corridor construction will start this fall. This won't be happening within the City quite yet, but the work in the more rural segments of the line can be done during the winter. Quite a it of track upgrade and some "land bridges" - crossing of wetlands and other difficult soils - is actually better done in cold weather.

Roll-on/roll-off service will be provided for bicycles. Across the country, this service is being requested on Amtrak and other passenger rail routes. This allows bicycles to be brought onto the train without needing to disassemble the bike or put it in a box. Roll-on/roll-off service allows bicyclists to bike to and from the train easily, which in turn supports the rail service and extends the "passenger shed" - that area of a city where passengers can easily access the train. Generally, there is either an area of the baggage car or an area of each passenger car that has bike racks or hanging hooks where bikes can be secured.

In cities like Madison and Milwaukee, where bicycling is a common and encouraged form of transportation, having a bicycle when you exit the train allows users to get to their final destination or home without needing a car or waiting for the bus. But other communities along the way have been requesting this service so that visitors can access the trails and other recreational destinations directly from the train. This is really great news.

Some amount of "convenient," "reasonably-priced" parking is required for rail passengers in Madison. The reason I put these terms in quotes is because people may have different ideas about what is convenient and what is reasonably priced. I did a little on-line research, and there are lots of Amtrak locations, even on commuter lines, that do not have any overnight parking available. Many others have overnight parking in more remote locations, and the parking closest to the station are fairly pricey hourly spots.

This is a big question still up in the air. Madison's Parking Utility pays all of its costs via user fees - that is, the cost of meters, ramps, staffing of ramps, repair of ramps, and even the capital cost of building new ramps or surface lots is paid for by those that park there. Want more parking? That means the parking rates will likely go up.

The closest ramp to the Madison Station is the Government East ramp, and it is in very bad shape. Regardless of happens with the train, that ramp needs to be rebuilt. Because land in downtown is valuable, and a parking rap is generally not considered a good above-ground use for urban land, the Transit and Parking Commission has stated that it wants to build any new ramp underground, thereby reserving the street front and air rights for retail, residential, hotel, or office uses.

Smart move, but expensive. Going underground is always expensive. Just replacing the existing number of spots - just over 500 - will probably cost well over $50,000 PER SPACE. Yup, the cost of one parking spot is measured in tens of thousands of dollars. I have even heard estimates as high as $75,000 per space. All of that has to be paid for by those parking at meters or in the ramps.

Now the DOT wants cheap, "convenient" parking for train passengers as well. If they expect the City to subsidize parking for train passengers, this undercuts the entire concept of the Parking Utility - that users pay the full cost. So will the DOT chip in some money for those extra spots next door to the station? Or perhaps they will decide that, in order to get less expensive parking, they are willing to have people parking in one of the other, cheaper, less crowded city ramps. That's what other cities do.

A stakeholders group is being set up by the DOT and Mayor to deal with corridor issues within the City. Representatives of neighborhoods along the route, business interests, alders, and other interested parties will be appointed to advise DOT on corridor issues: crossings, safety, noise, aesthetics, lighting, etc. The DOT is not required to follow their recommendations, but they will be very important in providing input and expertise on these issues.

The City and DOT are still considering whether it will be possible to move the railroad tracks that run through Central Park. That would both allow a better use of the land for the park and cut down on the need to cross the tracks between Baldwin and Ingersoll.

The City is applying for a TIGER grant from the federal government in order to build a true multi-modal station, with not just car parking, but also a bike station, transit hub, and public market. TIGER stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery and is part of the Recovery Act. TIGER grants are designed, in the word of the US DOT " spur a national competition for innovative, multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional transportation projects that promise significant economic and environmental benefits to an entire metropolitan area, a region or the nation."

Finally, there will be another Public Information Meeting at the new station, AKA the Dept of Administration Bldg, on Tuesday, August 31, 4:30-7:30 PM.

And I must say, the DOT has gotten a lot better about getting information up on their web site. I've worked with, or at least tried to influence DOT projects and  policy for over a decade, and they are generally not known for being the most transparent organization. But they are now putting up news releases, posters from public meetings, maps, and much more. I think this will both help the public get information and give feedback, as well as help the DOT answer critics that claim everything is happening behind closed doors.

I'll try to continue to update information as it becomes available. It's no secret that I think this project is important to the transportation future of Madison and the entire region. I want the DOT to hear the opinions and concerns of the public, but I also want this project to go forward without delay. I think both can easily be achieved.

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