Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My letter to Scott Walker on rail

Although lots of people are calling and emailing Doyle and Walker to support the Madison-Milwaukee extension of rail service, I thought a person, hard copy, snail letter might be a good idea. Below you can see my letter Walker.

I will likely also deliver copies to all current and future Wisconsin state and federal legislators. [Note that mail to DC is very slow, so using the address of the district office for US Senators and Representatives may be more efficient.]

November 10, 2010
Governor-Elect Scott Walker
Transition Office
The Risser Justice Center
17 West Main Street, Suite 310
Madison, WI 53703
Governor-Elect Walker:
Congratulations on your recent victory.
I praise your effort to utilize tax revenues in an efficient and effective matter in the delivery of services to the public. I do NOT praise your decision to reject federal funds designated to extend the Hiawatha line from Madison to Milwaukee, and eventually on the Twin Cities. 
Efficient, accessible, and affordable transportation for all, regardless of age or physical ability means having choices in mode of travel.  The federal plan to build a rail network between Midwest cities is a step in this direction. Already, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha line is bursting at the seams, and we can anticipate the same demand on the extension to Madison.
There are already strong connections between Minnesota and Wisconsin, and frequent travel between Madison and the Twin Cities, not to mention connections to either LaCrosse or Eau Claire. The opportunity to strengthen these connections and provide fast, efficient travel between these destination – for business or tourism, single or multi-day trips – will be lost if we do not move forward with the Madison-Milwaukee link.
Your rejection is myopic and will allow the over $800 million dollars designated for the Wisconsin portion of the project to transfer to another state as well as force the State of Wisconsin to reimburse the federal government for funds already spent. Do we really want to send that money, as well as the jobs, to Illinois, New York, or Florida?
This project not only means jobs and funding flowing into Wisconsin, but it has been vetted and received extensive planning and public input for over a decade. All appropriate and required procedures have been followed, studies have been made of routes and ridership, and Wisconsin was awarded federal funding in a very competitive grant process.
Why would we throw away this opportunity?
I am concerned that you continue to insist that the operating costs would be too high. We both know that the Hiawatha receives a 90% subsidy on its operating expenses, and we could expect a similar cost sharing on the new section. This brings the operating expenses down to $750,000 per year, a real bargain when moving people between major cities.
Another concern about your preoccupation with the operating expenses is the implication that our highways do not cost anything to operate, or that all these expenses are covered by user fees. All road in Wisconsin are only 60% covered by user fees, and local roads, where the majority of driving is done, are 100% paid for by local property taxes. As a property owner and Wisconsin taxpayer, I would like to see the burden of road maintenance lowered. Providing alternatives to driving is one way to avoid expanding the roads and helping those we have last longer. Both of these will result in cost savings over time.
We also must consider social justice when we think about transportation policy. Many people cannot drive, or do not own cars for various reasons, including the expense. Those who cannot or do not drive also need to travel. Linking our major cities in the Midwest by rail is a cost and time-competitive alternative to flying, and certainly fast than bus service, which is limited to the same congested roads and bad weather as our cars. Rail and transit service allows people to access jobs, visit family, and move about without the financial burden of a car.
US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood has made it clear that the funding currently assigned to this project will never be available for roads or bridges in Wisconsin. The funding currently assigned to Wisconsin will simply go to another state for their rail projects. There are significant expenses that Wisconsin must undertake simply to meet federal standards on the existing Hiawatha line. Freight rail will also benefit when tracks are upgraded. And finally, there are expenses already incurred, which we will need to pay back. All of these opportunities will be lost if you continue on your current course.
Please find a way to move Wisconsin forward with clean, fast, efficient, and fiscally wise rail service. It means jobs, connections to resources in the Midwest, and fair policy.
Thank you. 


  1. Well said. If folks would figure the likely subsidy of $750K annually in terms of WI not having to match federal dollars in a 80/20 mix to build it in the first place, it almost becomes a bargain. And now having to pay back $100 million to the federal government for basically what amounts to nothing, it doesn't do much for our road budget either. Better off to build it, subsidize it for many years at 750K a year and use the rest of what would have been the $100 mil. payback money to fix some roads.


  2. Hi, I also support the train and am a little upset at Walker just lighting money on fire to make a point. However, can you explain where you get data for this statement: Already, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha line is bursting at the seams, and we can anticipate the same demand on the extension to Madison.

    I'd love to be able to use that info, but from the data I've seen, the rail line is not bursting, mostly because it's inefficient (something this new rail line will fix!)

  3. @Irish Frog: I'm running to a meeting, so can't research all the articles, but I googled "Hiawatha, Chicago, Milwaukee, ridership," and this was the first article to come up:
    Bix Times (not always friendly to rail and non-road options), Oct 29, 2010: NOW: Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service has record ridership