Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fisking A JS Train Editorial, or Shooting Fish in Barrel

I've started to ignore anything the Journal Sentinal says about the Madison-Milwaukee not quite so very high speed train because, let's face it, this thing is dead and anything they say isn't going to matter. I chose to read "The Disconnect on Connections," though, because the author promised to use Wisconsin's transportation history to show why this train makes sense, and that interests me because I've actually been pondering the history of passenger trains and trolleys in Wisconsin's moderate-sized to large cities and their death in the face of the automobile.

What I found in the editorial was disappointing. It wasn't grounded in reality, and it was desperate. I'm going to leave the first half of the story alone as it uses Wisconsin's history of investing in cutting edge transportation as a mechanism to make the reader assume that a not so very high speed train is cut of the same cloth. I'd like to dig into those last several paragraphs a little, though.

The idea seems oddly nostalgic at first - why build passenger trains in the 21st century? - but it actually fits an emerging settlement pattern. Not in my lifetime but perhaps in my grandchildren's, and for better or worse, an interconnected megalopolis will sprawl from Benton Harbor, Mich., to Minneapolis-St. Paul. As the empty spaces fill in, there will be a demand for some form of transport that's faster than cars but has more frequent stops (and fewer exasperating waits) than airplanes.

Indeed, why? The arguments from supporters have been far from compelling. The "cool kids are doing it" argument doesn't cut it. The facts on the ground are that the demographics of the entire line, whether it be from Milwaukee to Madison or Milwaukee to Minneapolis, in no way support a train. So a vision is painted for us of a megalopolis from Michigan to Minnesota that is just a couple of generations away. I'm sorry, but that should set off any reasonable person's BS meter.

Chicago to Milwaukee is a major metropolitan entity right now, but it is far from a megalopolis. Now I agree with some of the studies/papers out there that say a megalopolis will form along the coast of Lake Michigan over multiple, multiple generations. But we are no where close to that. And the idea of a Benton Harbor to Minneapolis megalopolis is absurd. If you've been to the Northeastern corridor in this country, you know what makes a megalopolis. If you've driven the vast rural expanses along I-90 and I-94 to Minneapolis, you know that there is no way this corridor can build up to that extent in the next 100 years. There may be no reason for that corridor to ever become that urban, but even if it eventually did, high speed rail would be a quaint, antique technology by then.

Don't believe it's happening? Consider the city of Jefferson, just south of I-94, which has gained population in recent years despite a steady loss of jobs. Once the trading center for a prosperous farm region, Jefferson has increasingly become a bedroom community for white-collar workers commuting to Madison or Milwaukee. We can expect more of the same in years to come.

What?! Has the author ever been to Jefferson? Ever? I've absolutely zero evidence of Jefferson drawing white collar residents. Where are they living, next to the closed golf course? There are three towns of similar size in the postage stamp sized corner of the world: Jefferson, Whitewater, and Fort Atkinson. I don't see any of the three cities becoming bedroom communities for the white collar workers of Madison and Milwaukee. When we bought our home, I hoped that the housing boom would last long enough for Fort Atkinson to become a bedroom community of Madison, but it did not happen. And I assure you, in this market, Jefferson isn't, either.

Not that this matters, because this entire corridor would need to be drawing new citizens from out of state for new white collar jobs that are sprouting across Madison and Milwaukee. That isn't happening. Even my hopes of this area becoming a bedroom community weren't pinned on the type of new growth that would be required to support this train line. It was built on the fact that the price of real estate and the high taxes of Milwaukee and Madison were driving people out of those counties in search of homes. Population redistribution in a region does not make a train more viable.

As the price of gasoline reaches European levels, climbing to $4, then $5, then $6 a gallon; as our freeways creep closer to gridlock without exorbitant public subsidies (think $810 million for the Marquette Interchange, the exact cost of the entire Milwaukee-Madison rail project); and as the economic linkages between Midwestern cities become more apparent - doesn't high-speed rail begin to make sense?

Trains do not exist in a vacuum. They are also not an energy neutral. The rise in petroleum prices push those with any kind of energy flexibility to other sources, thus pushing up the costs of those energies. In this case, most likely coal power, which the Obama administration would already like to make more expensive for you. Those increased costs must either be shoulder by riders, who would already be paying a princely sum to ride the train, or by the government, i.e., government subsidies in perpetuity.

I wouldn't expect the system to have much impact on the poverty of Milwaukee's central city, and it's no substitute for a sound county transit system, but there's no doubt that starting the high-speed line today would help to meet future regional needs.

Again, I point out that this is a generation M solution for a problem that will not likely be evident until generation R, S, T, or even later. And by that time, it will almost certainly be a technology that is hopelessly behind the times.

An earlier generation of Wisconsinites did precisely the same thing. When our ancestors committed themselves to railroads, they were taking a chance, but the gamble paid off handsomely. In 1883, Alexander Mitchell, Wisconsin's railroad king, spoke plainly about what would have happened to Milwaukee without first-rate rail connections: "If it had not been for the enterprise and public spirit and liberality of the citizens of Milwaukee, both individually and collectively, Milwaukee today might have been no larger than Manitowoc or Sheboygan."

They were taking personal financial risk, first of all, although governments mitigated that somewhat. And the riskiness of the bets didn't lay in the mode of transportation, it was in particular lines. That is a huge difference. There were riches to be had if you bet on the right line. In this case, there is no promise of the sort. In fact, the history of Amtrak would indicate that this would be a vortex of cash with very little tangible or intangible benefit.

It's not the money; it's the connections. If the $810 million allocated to Wisconsin goes elsewhere, if high-speed rail never becomes a reality in our state, if the main line passes us by to the south and west, might not future generations condemn our own lack of "enterprise and public spirit"? Can we afford not to take the chance? Is that a bet Scott Walker really wants to make?

It certainly could go south and west, but it makes the line even less viable. Do you know how long it would take a not so very high speed train to travel from Chicago to Rockford to Iowa and up to Minneapolis, with all of the attendant stops in between? If you don't, try to brush up on your Pythagorean theorem. The mini legs between Town X, IL, and Chicago and Town Y, MN, and Minneapolis would make sense, but the much larger rider potential between the people of the Chicago Metro and the Twin Cities Metro would not because both air travel and automobile travel would be more efficient. Plus the line would bypass the two largest metros along the way, ceding valuable ridership. This train has to travel through Wisconsin to make any sense, and we can afford to wait for several generations. In fact, doing so might reward us with even better technology if and when the time comes that it does make sense. And with all the growth, assuming it actually occurs, the country would be much more able to afford it.

(Update 11:27: Now with linky goodness.)

1 comment:

Dad29 said...

And Common Sense do with it?