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KRM commuter trains not frozen out (Jan.18) - As Midwest temperatures plunged to mid-January depths not experienced in years (with wind chill pushing - 18 F near - 40 F), sunny predictions for the tri-county region once transit and KRM trains co-ordinate were met with glum doubts by a Californian citing his own review, which Journal Times reports boiled down to pursuing more study.
SEWRPC and a former transit financial officer in southern California differed in the extent of Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee study, the merits of bus-only transit, and the need for further inaction. SEWRPC presented its recommendations several years ago which led in 2005 to Legislature creation of a tri-county RTA. Thomas Rubin, now based with Reason Foundation, a non-profit organization, might have accomplished his study under RTA auspices, but that expense was blocked in June, 2008 by the RTA board. Mister Rubin gathered his findings nonetheless and spent the week of January 12-16 speaking in snow-covered Wisconsin to radio shows, community groups, and to Racine county board, which Journal Times reported. Doubts he raised about SEWRPC study methodologies were countered by recitation of its reliance on widely used, proven predictive models and evaluation of a bus-only alternate to commuter train service.
Inaction has been the most familiar result of past transit proposals, a Journal Sentinel story reported two week earlier. A US DOT fund resource was handed to Milwaukee by Congress seventeen years ago "for a Milwaukee-area public transit project," Journal Sentinel said. Several projects have been undertaken, but no encompassing use for the original funding was ever designated, and the remainder is locked in a policy impasse separate from the tri-county RTA debate.
RTA study statewide handed to experienced legislator (Jan. 21) - Wisconsin legislators rely on an affiliated non-partisan agency to develop parameters for eventual legislation, and in 2008 the Legislative Council undertook studying how statutory language could define a course for municipalities to form a regional transit authority. Presently, the Legislature must draft and pass in Assembly and Senate a bill creating a RTA. Only one RTA statute has been enacted, in 2005, to establish the tri-county RTA encompassing Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties. The state's most widely read nespaper, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was one of several news outlets reporting the study panel's new chair, Senator Judy Robson (D-Beloit). She led a Rock county attempt at the start of this decade to extend northeast Illinois Metra service closer to the neighbor cities of Janesville and Beloit, and served more recently as minority leader. Last month, Sen. Robson spoke out differing with the previous Leg. Council chairman of the RTA special committee, reported by Wisconsin State Journal announcing his intention to suspend consideration of proposals as his party became the minority in the Assembly and he relinquished his chairmanship.
Train travel in recovery spotlight (Jan 28) - Wednesday evening Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle capped a spate of advances for expanding train travel and commuting during his State of the State address to legislators and broadcast widely by Internet stream, television, and radio. Citing areas for long term investment to promote statewide economic vitality, Gov. Doyle said, "We can improve our electrical grid, broaden our internet lines and build rail lines. We will become more competitive and efficient in the long run and put people to work today."
On January 22 Gov. Doyle was more descriptive in testimony to the House of Representatives responsible committee. Lauding the House majority, Gov. Doyle told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee he is "pleased [that] the draft Appropriations Committee bill provides an additional $1.1 billion for passenger rail – $800 million for Amtrak and $300 million for state investments." T & I Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar has consistently sought greater investment and more cost-effective investment since assuming chairman duties in 2007.
Governor Doyle in his prepared remarks to the committee said further:
"Funding for passenger rail, but for Amtrak, has been substantially lacking in the federal transportation budget for decades. Since the 1940s, this country has disinvested in passenger rail while countries in Europe and Asia have made passenger rail the centerpiece of their transportation systems.
"... States have long believed that passenger rail is the missing link in our national transportation policy. Wisconsin has been a leading advocate in this national dialogue, even when those who believed that passenger rail could be a funded priority by the federal government were few and far between. In the mid-1990s, a nine-state group in the Midwest developed the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a plan for state-supported passenger rail service in the Midwest. This coalition recently received a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) grant to further refine the Midwest Regional Rail Coalition’s planning and environmental work, which will allow the states in the corridor to develop their projects for construction.
"The States for Passenger Rail Coalition was formed in 2000. Its membership has grown to include 31 states and two authorities. Fourteen states support rail corridor services with their state funds, including Wisconsin. At least 35 states are developing plans for expansion of services or new services. States have funded many intercity passenger rail corridor improvement projects, providing track and signal improvements, grade crossing improvements, stations and operating equipment.
" ... a number of national organizations have recently outlined passenger rail needs for the nation. unlike the highway and transit systems, US DOT does not provide conditions and performance reports for the nation's passenger rail network; this should change and change soon. Amtrak has estimated the needs of the Amtrak system, and over the past decade, the states have recognized the value of passenger rail in addressing their mobility issues and have begun to implement service."
Governor Doyle spoke with the insights gained by Wisconsin DOT Sec. Frank Busalacchi while serving on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, 2005-07, which recommended in its majority report to Congress that train travel and commuting should regain federal support, as other advanced nations invested during 50-plus years while America placed its transportation infrastructure dollars in air and highway travel.
Commuter trains nurture better neighborhoods, expert tells Oak Creek gathering (Jan. 30) - As new proponents for KRM commuter trains are sought to further expand its support, the president of Center for Neighborhood Technology addressed a Friday morning gathering of business and community leaders sprinkled with elected officials from communities south of Milwuakee. "Investing in public transit is a desirable alternative to the so-called 'drive-till-you-qualify' real estate market, (according to) a national expert in urban development," Kenosha News reported. It quoted Scott Bernsein advising further, "History shows that if you don’t pay attention to what the economic benefits are, you won’t have a sustained effort."
Racine and Milwaukee persist in going their own ways (Feb. 12) - Two years after the RTA board recommended a sales tax to pay regional transit expenses, Milwaukee county board pushed through an advisory referendum narrowly approved by voters for a sales tax twice as large (see Dec. 4, 2008 item). Three months later, early in February, Milwaukee county supervisors voted 13-5 to propose a RTA comprised of five Milwaukeeans among nine RTA board members instead of the current county-city pair for Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha plus an appointee by the governor. A Journal Sentinel editorial lauds the step forward to agreeing an RTA will benefit Milwaukee without assessing the unilateral conditions attached.
Racine county board met five days later and deferred action on a RTA resolution, Racine Journal Times reported. As proposed, then deferred, the county board would favor an elected board directly responsible to voters rather than appointees by mayor and county executive, which made the heads of city and county government responsible since 2005. The reported resolution takes no position on levying a tax, instead predicating the voter role on any taxing authority the RTA might acquire from the state.
In Kenosha county, the county board adopted a resolution endorsing the RTA Board recommendations sent to Madison in November. Kenosha County Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) also voted support for an RTA and for transit funded by a sales tax not exceeding one-half of one percent (0.5%).
Primary proponent for KRM, TransitNOW, lists supporters for the commuter train facet and for a RTA at its dedicated page for endorsers.
Most people attending Kenosha Expo favor KRM, and permanent RTA (Feb. 21) - During the six hours of Kenosha Expo's first day, KRM trains drew warm, sometimes impatient support among most visitors to the TransitNOW booth. Some of the fifty-plus area people stopping to talk spontaneously voiced surprise that the long-sought proposal had yet to advance to the construction phase. Some recalled the "North Shore" interurban trains which halted Milwaukee-Chicago hourly service in 1963, 46 years ago this month. And a handful stopped to ask narrow questions about cost, while rejecting any replies by three KRM advocates who expanded answers to embrace job access gains, property tax relief, proven household income gains elsewhere. (For example, see Scott Bernstein presentation three weeks ago and Eugene Skoropowski description three years ago of revived prosperity in a former factory city much like Racine.) During public comment sessions during the period formulating the KRM proposal, circa 2000-2005, favorable comment was at least as one-sided as the first day at Kenosha Expo, during one comment cycle amounting to more than 1,000 supportive comments versus 20 criticisms.
RTA Board Chairman Karl Ostby wrote in similarly glowing terms of goals for the trio of counties in a Sunday op-ed published by Kenosha News.
Faster train travel likely in next four years (Feb. 22) - Weekend news discloses major gains for funding 110 mph train travel in several corridors nationwide, and Associated Press writer Jim Abrams ranks ambitions for the Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) highly. An initiative touted to WisARP at a Racine semi-annual gathering in 1999 and crafted three years earlier after detailed study by engineering professionals working for US railroads at that time, the ambitions for fast diesel-powered passenger trains have languished as states increased their funding match to federal dollars simply to maintain service by Amtrak.
Associated Press notes that six areas nationwide are eager for more passenger trains operating faster than preaviling 79 mph maximum everywhere, except the Northeast Corridor, Washington DC-New York CIty-Boston. Those areas are the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, Florida, the South, California and California-Nevada. That last route has been targeted by critics of trains as a "Sin Express", singling out one route intending to tarnish all. Last Thursday (Feb. 19), newly installed US DOT Sec. Ray LaHood said faster train travel in selected corridors, such as the MWRR Initiative proposes, are "certainly at the top of [President Obama's] list" of infrasturcture projects. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress and signed promptly by President Obama commits $48 billion to US DOT projects, more on highways than any other mode of transportaton.
Racine city unanimous for RTA and its KRM trains, county board less clear cut (March 4) - City of Racine alderpersons didn't shy away from expert recommendations supporting a regional transit authority despite a sporadic flurry of no-tax objections when they voted on a resolution introduced by Common Council President David Maack last night. Racine Journal Times reports council opinion reflected confidence that KRM commuter trains will "foster development and connect Racine to economic growth."
One week earlier, Racine County Board met one-half mile west of the demarcation set in November to delineate the non-RTA geography of the county, and split narrowly in favor of the RTA in an equivocal resolution, 13-10. Racine Journal Times reported several limiting conditions listed in the resolution which had not previously been asserted to any RTA board meeting.
The RTA for Southeastern Wisconsin was established in 2005 by the Legislature, which has since shifted its majority to the other party, and the RTA board met periodically throughout 2006 to evaluate accumulated experience elsewhere in the nation before recommending in November, 2006 that a sales tax levied at no more than one-half of one percent (5¢ on $10) take over underwriting of transit from property taxes levied in varying amounts. Over the subsequent 27 months a succession of unvetted alternatives and preconditions have emerged.
Just say 'No' to transit, Burlington and Sturtevant declare (Mar. 18) - "Officials on the west end of the county don't like the idea of a Regional Transit Authority, even if their communities aren't included in the plan being floated as part of Gov. Jim Doyle s budget proposal," Racine Jounral Times reported. The interim RTA board heard at its pivotal November 10 session that Burlington might grow enough to consider modest bus service within the next five years. Howevver, its elected officals unanimously closed the door to any hints of it after hearing a presentation at their March 18 regular city council meeting. The western two-thirds of Racine county was removed from RTA consideration at the Nov. 10 RTA board meeting at insistence of County Executive William Reynolds.
Budget writers hear many appeals for RTA and funding it (Mar. 31) - Sixteen Wisconsin legislators designated to craft needed improvements to Gov. Jim Doyle's 2009-11 biennial budget proposal heard more calls for approving the Regional Transit Authority budget item than any other issue yesterday at Racine's J.I. Case High School.
Minutes after convening, the committee and area legislators in attendance heard Racine Mayor Tom Freidel's welcome, followed by his first mention of need for KRM trains and the RTA., quoted by WRJN local radio: "A fully functional regional transit authority, complete with commuter rail, is necessary to stimulate the economy and create jobs in this region." Next, a delegation of Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce (RAMAC) comprised of four CEOs for international companies based in Racine reiterated their strong endorsement of the RTA item in Doyle's budget proposal. "We've never seen so much business support," Rep. Peter Barca told Kenosha News. During the next several hours of public comments on a variety of budget issues, support for creating the RTA permanently surfaced again and again. An estimated 20 speakers, from the sheet metal union business agent to train fan John Kelley McGee, spoke in clear endorsement for keeping the item in the budget.
Three Racine area legislators serve with thirteen colleagues on Joint Committee on Finance, so Journal Times featured the tax protestors camped at the entryway to Case high school Monday. Two speakers testified against taxes generally, and another one addressed the sales tax after speaking on an unrelated principal issue. Non-specific grousing against taxes is fashionable in the area, where high unemploymnet has persisted for years.
Saved at last; Sturtevant turret depot saved at last (Apr. 4) - Sixteen years after village trustees of Sturtevant agreed to lease the building so volunteer work by a handful of devotees might renovate it, the historic old station will "likely" move before CP Rail clears the site for a new building, Racine Journal Times reports. Locating sufficient funds to accomplish the sectioning and transport the 1902 building stymied several attempts more recently to spare it from demoliiton, and Journal Times reports Caledonia Historical Society has now enough pledged money to proceed. A contractor has been selected, and a suitable new location identified.
The present location originally overlooked the intersection of two important Milwaukee Road main lines, thus the turret affording a clear view along the east-west and north-south tracks for the signal operator controlling use of the intersection, a 'crossing.' Local history buffs believe it may be the only Milwaukee Road station constructed with a turret, differing from the more typical bay for viewing both directions along adjacent tracks. Long after the 'diamond' of intersecting rails was removed, a CTC operator remained on duty there 24 / 7 to handle operations on the busy, super-fast Chicago and Milwaukee subdivision main tracks and delivering written train order instructions to trains destined west to Union Grove and Beloit, to trains returning east to Racine and its many industrial shippers. Eventually, newer communication and signal control technologies made that set of tasks obsolete, and the turret room became part of indoor shelter for waiting Amtrak Hiawatha passengers. Soo Line, preceding owner of the property, in 1992 notified local officials of its intent to raze the neglected wood building, leading a hardy band of volunteers to attempt renovation. By 1995 their efforts were proving insufficient and Amtrak passengers were increasingly unsettled by indoor conditons. In 1998, Gov. Tommy Thompson pledged his support for replacing the old station, a quest which wended through eight years as parking limitations became more critical and eliminating pedestrains walking across tracks as freight and non-stop Amtrak trains approached, worrying everyone but themselves. Amtrak Hiawathas have not stopped there since August, 2006.
CP Rail announced early in 2009 that it intends to clear the site after June 1, and the goal for historic preservationists is to accomplish the relocation or finagle another delay beyond that apparently final deadline. Village of Sturtevant formally honored the old depot since 2001 with its silhouette adorning official village signs at its boundaries on all major streets.
President Obama, Vice President Biden and US DOT Sec. Ray LaHood unveil "Vision for High-Speed Rail in America" (April 17) - President Obama less than three months after taking office formally proposed implementation of the $8 billion train travel investment set forth in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act flanked by Vice President Biden and Sec. of Transportation Ray LaHood. Excerpts from their remarks follow, as posted at the White House site.
Vice President Joe Biden: ìItís about time we took those railways and made them the national treasures they should beÖI want to say particular thanks to three people. And the first is Secretary LaHood for his leadership and vision. He jumped right into this job and he didnít miss a stepÖAnd this is very uncharacteristic of me, Mr. President, but I want to thank Rahm Emanuel. (Laughter.) Not only as smart as a devilÖit was Rahmís tenacious, tenacious persistence that led to getting this high-speed rail in the Recovery Act. It was at your direction, but Iím not sure it would have been done without him. And third, to the man whoÖhas turned the years of talk in Washington into a season of action, President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama: "I've been speaking a lot lately about what we're doing to break free of our economic crisis to put people back to work and move this nation from recession to recovery. And one area in which we can make investments with impact both immediate and lasting is in America's infrastructure. ... And that's why the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan we passed not two months ago included the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s./p>
"But if we want to move from recovery to prosperity, then we have to do a little bit more. We also have to build a new foundation for our future growth. Today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines is hindering that growth. ... What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century. A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility. A system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity. A system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.
"What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America."
More complete reporting about the federal role in catching up to other advanced industrial nations and their broader transportation investment can be found at National Association of Railroad Passengers, weekly Hotline Report for April 17, 2009.
Ten route systems or corridors are designated in this initial reformulation of America's travel and freight shipment, conforming to preliminary work accomplished, 2005-2007, by the 12-member surface transportation study commission appointed by Congress. (See 2007 reference on this site here and several 2008 references.) The Chicago Hub system, originally the Midwest High Speed Rail Initiative unveiled during years of Gov. Tommy Thompson, is prominent among them and the single proposal which Wisconsin has consistently supported. To view the Fedral Railroad Administration map of eligible routes, click here.
Fast trains on Chicago Hub route array promoted by Midwest governors (Apr. 17) - Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin has sights set on connecting Madison to Milwaukee with fast trains by extending existing Amtrak Hiawatha Service to the state's capital city. A first segment of a larger plan to connect across the state to the Mississippi River at La Crosse, then beyond in Minnesota to its most populous Twin Cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Governor Tim Pawlenty concurs to an extent, directing his administration to develop a statewide priority list for train service. The existing proposal, first unveiled in the 1990s as one branch of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative and currently named the Chicago Hub system, has no provision for populous Rochester 90 miles south of the Twin Cities nor for the Northern Lights Express passenger route, the 150-mile Minneapolis-Duluth track formerly served by Amtrak. Two Minnesota mayors and a state representative spoke to a Wisconsin Assoc'n of Rail Passengers (WisARP) semi-annual gathering late in March about enthusiasm in Winona, Hastings and Rochester for more trains serving their cities; more than none in the latter two.
Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois has sights set on fast trains in several directions across his state, including eager quest by Rockford for resumption of trains ended 28 years ago by Amtrak due to slow track conditions. Budding commuter train ambitions for Rockford-Belvidere-Elgin-West Chicago-Chicago are reinforced by the longer route west through Galena to Dubuque, Iowa formerly served by Amtrak. East of Rockford, a substitute route, considerably quicker than the past route, via Union Pacific (an original Chicago & Northwestern Rwy. track rooted in its 1848 origins) promises to consolidate upgrade expenditure on a single shared route. Probable maximum speed for the Dubuque-Chicago trains will match intentions for eventual Wisconsin plans north of Milwaukee to Green Bay, up to 79 mph.
Gov. Quinn finds his state most ready to raise speed along the most-traveled Amtrak route in Illinois, Chicago-Bloomington-Springfield-St. Louis. IllDOT has participated in upgrades of various modest kinds over most of the past ten years, consistent with mid-1990s plans for faster trains on several Midwest Amtrak routes. Experimental safety warnings and protection for motorists approaching grade crossings are among a range of improvements installed at Illinois locations, some permanently, some on a trial basis. Most essential for 110-mph speeds, portions of the historic rail route, the track itself and trains running on them have become far more capable than when Amtrak began operations in 1971 on that Gulf, Mobile & Ohio RR trackage, now owned by Union Pacific after years under Illinois Central Gulf RR ownership.
State of Michigan is the single Midwest state already operating a segment of track at 110-mph for routine use by Amtrak, and continues at the forefront seeking expansion of its test section of fast tracks. State of Indiana has stepped up with a bid for inclusion in any 110-mph train service, boosted in part by its suburban Indianapolis car repair and rebuilding shop, under Amtrak management.
Governor Jim Doyle delivers transit funds to Racine, Kenosha (Apr. 22) - Amid dwindling household incomes, an upswing in transit availability and preservation of existing services could not arrive at a better time. And Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle arrived with more than $2 million of federal stimulus money in hand for the transit service of Racine, adding a flourish with stated support for the Regional Transit Authority provision now before the legislators. "Wisconsin would finally join the modern world and have a regional transit authority" if his budget proposal passes Legislature muster, Racine Journal Times reported. Racine has suffered above-average unemployment for years and its business, labor and environmental groups all consistently support improved transit, including KRM commuter trains, as a necessary step toward shrinking the number of unemployed residents, many of them homeowners.
Gov. Doyle also presented more than $2 million in stimulus funds to Kenosha Area Transit, Kenosha News reported. "We have to make sure weíre focused on getting people back to work and investing in projects with long-term value."
Gov. Doyle proposed to the Legislature a RTA for Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee which would fund its services and capital investment with a county-by-county sales tax not exceeding 5-cents on a ten dollar purchase (0.5 %), with the customary Wisconsin exclusions for vital needs, like groceries.
SE Wisc. RTA reshaped, Fox Cities RTA erased, Dane county RTA intact (May 1) - Fifteen years after Racine Mayor Owen Davies began hosting informal meetings on Saturday morning to test area interest in restoring train commuting through Racine, a trio of proposed regional transit authorities (RTAs) proposed earlier in 2009 by Gov. Jim Doyle were dealt separate fates by sixteen budget-writing legislators. The Joint Committee on Finance crafts the state's biennial budget after conducting public hearings, as they did in Racine and five other locations during March. On April 30, they were to begin formal action on the differing proposals for three RTAs recommended by Gov. Doyle amid conflicting priorities among mutiple SE Wisconsin factions, weak support outside Appleton among Fox River and Lake Winnebago cities, and notable unity among sometimes fractious Dane county groups.
SE Wisconsin ambitions for a RTA encompassing multiple transit modes linking three populous cities and their suburbs suffered again, this time in large part due to differences lingering from mid-1990s imposition of a one-tenth cent sales tax to pay for replacing Milwaukee County Stadium on a land parcel near it. Significant differences between use for sales taxes now and then were overshadowed by insistent reminders of the unpopular one-tenth cent tax by a small band opposed to countywide transit in Racine county. A Milwaukee county advisory referendum six months ago cleared doubts about imposing a sales tax there, in contrast to Racine county which was split at request of County Executive William McReynolds six days after the Milwaukee referendum, excluding his county's western two-thirds from any RTA consideration. Kenosha business, labor and environmental groups all supported Gov. Doyle's initial multi-mode, half-cent sales tax proposal, as Racine city groups also offered broadly based support. The committee's 11:00 a.m. Thursday start was delayed ten hours when Racine Journal Times reported Rep. Cory Mason, a JFC member, holding out hope that Gov. Doyle's proposal might endure. Eventually, Joint Finance Comm. directed early today, Associated Press reports, a one-cent sales tax for Milwaukee county and sharply hiked car rental tax funding KRM commuter trains to start up service initially explored in 1994, and a variant as early as 1979 when Rep. Les Aspin invited successful Chicago & Northwestern Rwy. to consider extension.
City of Appleton sought allies to strengthen funding for its bus service, but the same Associated Press account advises Republicans declined support for all RTA proposals. Green Bay and Ripon are represented on Joint Finance Comm., but not Appleton.
Dane county has mulled several transit expansion options in recent years, and gradually achieved consensus on commuter trains, but not light rail, to interchange commuters and visitors with a robust Metro Bus operation. As the state's largest land area county, Dane county and the responsble MPO coincide, easing decision-making and planning.
Midwest fast trains will be most cost-effective, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman declares (May 12) - During testimony to the Illinois House Railroad Industry Committee at a Chicago hearing, Chicago Tribune quoted Amtrak CEO and President Joe Boardman scrutinizing how to extract the greatest benefits for energy-saving, less air polluting travel. "It's really not about the [maximum] speed. It's about reduced travel times and more frequency", he told legislators.
The Chicago Hub array of routes, to nine Midwest states when fully constructed years from now, will rely on diesel-powered trains peaking at 110-mph, well below the 180 miles per hour maximum speed attained routinely by European and Asian high speed trains, like French TGV and German InterCity Express. Several crucial features of "high speed" trains elsewhere require more passenger usage than predicted for Chicago Hub fast train routes, including:
Chicago Tribune summarzied CEO Boardman's views as making "more sense. He said the immediate focus must be on modernizing infrastructure to increase train speeds." Tediously slow speeds, less than 20-mph in isolated places, currently hamper Amtrak schedules disproportionately. Mister Boardman expects to significantly improve train travel by first trimming en route delays, such as caused by inordinately slow conditions. Comparable attention to cost-effective improvements for attaining speeds occasionally reached by certain Midwest railroads during the 1930s and 1940s distinguishes CEO Joseph Boardman's fast train ambitions for Chicago Hub routes from more ethereal hopes for TGV-imitating high speed trains.
Amtrak Hiawathas resuming ridership gains (May 14) - March each year typically sees Hiawathas carrying more passengers than during two preceding winter months, but monthly totals tumbled sharply after peaking last August, at a record 78,600, as spending and travel shrank during the financial crisis. Now gains are resuming, based on March data released recently showing the current March, 2009 total of 55,777 Amtrak Hiawatha passengers surpasses every previous March total except in 2008. For the first three months of 2009, ridership totals lag last year's first quarter by just 3.2 percent.
Gasoline prices spiked during summer, 2008, and have climbed 25 percent above US$2 since late March. Spiking prices pushed 2008 ridership during the first eight months (Aug) past the full-year total for 2007.
Among three Wisconsin stations for Amtrak Hiawathas, Sturtevant held just above 2008 ridership and avoided a March decline of 10 percent or more, comparing year for year. Hiawatha passengers at Chicago Union Station totaled more than 11 percent fewer than March, 2008, as did Milwaukee stations.
Thirty-eight years without passenger trains have not dimmed quest for resumed service (May 21) - When Chicago and Northwestern Rwy. President Ben Heinemann struck a 1960s deal with commerce regulators to continue passenger trains through Green Bay to the resort counties of northern Wisconsin as far as Ashland, no one imagined the commitment would end with start up of a nationwide passenger train company, Amtrak. But May 1, 1971 marked the final cessation of railroad companies shouldering costs for passenger trains, and C&NW operated its last passenger train from Chicago through Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Neenah-Menasha, Appleton and Green Bay. A quarter-century later, Amtrak board chairman Tommy Thompson sought revenue boosts for the company's passenger trains and considered a trial extension of one Hiawatha Service train to a field near Fond du Lac; it was a viable plan for adding express freight, but unappealing for passengers and a flawed truncation of a 1994 WisDOT multi-modal agenda titled Translinks 21. Throughout, a yearning for passenger train service has persisted among a hardy core of NE Wisconsin boosters, although a NEWRail chapter of WisARP formally disbanded about four years ago.
In 2009 as President Barack Obama sets in motion expansion of faster trains for people outside the NorthEast Corridor, in accord with his campaign pledge in 2008 and with December, 2007 recommendations of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, persistent quest for passenger trains in the Fox River Valley cities north of Fond du Lac has quickly coalesced into organized effort. One posted message informally described a crowd for the March organizational meeting at Green Bay and announces a Wednesday, May 27, public meeting at Appleton Public Library. Click here for meeting details posted on the NEWRails site. As many as 800 persons have indicated support for the fledgling group's goal of restoring passenger trains on a Wisconsin route that survived longest in pre-Amtrak years.
Transit expansion absent from Illinois spending increase, tax and fee hikes enough for 'state of good repair' (May 22) - Emulating the federal government job-creation strategy to spend on construction work and transportation projects, Illinois state senators two days ago passed legislation hiking taxes on alcohol and other fees to fund Chicago-area Pace bus, CTA bus and heavy rail trains, and Metra commuter trains. Northeast Illinois RTA Chairman Jim Reilly told the Daily Herald of Chicago, "It gives us a chance to catch up." One day later, a majority in the General Assembly agreed and sent the measure to Gov. Pat Quinn for sigining into law.
The capital spending bill ends years of indecision in the Illinois state house over equipment and infrastructure spending for transit in the state's most populous, capital-intensive northeastern counties, according to Chicago Tribune, quoting Brian Imus, statewide director of non-profit Illinois Public Interest Research Group. More catch up than expansion, he went to say, "When you look at the problems we're facing, like volatile gas prices and growing traffic congestion, we should be thinking about how to expand the system."
Legislators bat around the RTA ball, KRM just a pop fly ball from being out (June 20) - Unable to adopt the propoosal advanced by Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) for structuring a regional transit authority or to sustain SEWRPC recommendation for funding with a sales tax, legislators have in the past three weeks reviewed three successive RTA specifications. Each differs from its predeccessor, although the latest by state senators looks more like the hodge podge nailed together by Joint Finance Committee almost two months ago. Intervening was a proposal by Assembly budget crafters which:
State Rep. Cory Mason, Racine, declared to local media in a single sentence -- leaving no room for doubt -- that the Senate version adopted most recently "will stop KRM in its tracks." A conference committee must reconcile all differences between Assembly and Senate to craft a compromise bill.
Senators club a long fly ball, state Assembly catches it Friday evening, then votes 51-46 to throw it to Governor Doyle (June 28) - Eighty-eight days after the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance heard numerous statements in support of transit for Racine and its neighboring counties at J.I. Case High School, for KRM commuter trains and an RTA to oversee all of it, the state Senate on Thursday adopted by a 17-15 vote the budget bill which includes an RTA compromise hammered out during the past ten days. Some features generated by Joint Finance survived, some favored by the Senate prevailed, and Assembly preference appears in key items. Key transit items related to local bus service and RTA:
Passage last November 4 of a referendum favoring a supplementary local sales tax positioned Milwaukee county for Legislature approval of an unpopular, but seemingly necessary adjunct to existing tax revenues at a time when local Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) confronts daunting funding needs to replenish its bus fleet after several years of stripped out funding.
Controversy surrounds choice of a car rental fee for SERTA instead of a sales tax initially recommended by SEWRPC, which the interim RTA board endorsed in November, 2006, then discarded under pressure from the Milwaukee county executive. Changed economic conditions since then now persuade more officials to prefer the car rental approach due to strained municipal budgets in a region among the most adversely affected by the economic downturn. (Racine has struggled for many months with the most or second-most severe unemployment in Wisconsin. Milwaukee remains among the lowest in average household income nationwide.) However, property tax relief inherent in the new revenue streams for each county will lighten KRM startup cost-sharing at a critical juncture when its expansion of job access is so sorely needed.
Governor Doyle will catch this zinger thrown from the outfield unexpectedly and handle it without burning his fingers. RTAs sought for Dane County, Eau Claire County, and Ashland and Bayfield counties produced no comparable drama or controversy.
|An explanation from the webmaster|
|A flurry of news affecting Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter trains followed June 29 vetoing of key portions of the Legislatuire's compromise RTA structuring. Only the SERTA survived, and its mandate to achieve a tri-county KRM commuter train may have been blocked by a retaliatory vote denying it $35,000 for further KRM preliminaries. Governor Doyle has set goals for a more uniform RTA structure and pledged to achieve them in consultation with legislators this summer
However, the local transit-spanning origins of KRM have been lost, or at very least harshly pummeled between July 1 and July 15, 2009. This KenRail news summary did not detail the multi-faceted controversy.
Governor Doyle dances with Talgo, pledges southern Wisconsin assembly location for fast trains (July 17) - Tangoing with Talgo USA subsidiary of Spanish Patentes Talgo of Madrid, Gov. Jim Doyle announced Wisconsin DOT will purchase two 14-coach trains modelled on thoroughly proven Amtrak Cascades trains, which operate several times daily along the Seattle-Portland route. The Wisconsin trains will replace Amtrak-owned trainsets on the initial portion of the eventual Chicago-Madison-La Crosse-Twin Cities route, which currently extends only 86 miles, Chicago-Milwaukee, operating as Hiawatha Service. Gov. Doyle announced the $47 million purchase contract at Dane County Regional Airport, where a station for boarding and discharging Talgo fast train passengers will arise. That eastside location, in turn, will enhance intermodal connections with air travel and, Wisconsin State Journal reports, entail planned local rail transit now in its planning phase. Gov. Doyle expects fast 110-mph trains to begin Madison-Milwaukee operation as soon as 2013 if Wisconsin's application to Federal Railroad Administration for more than $500 million is awarded to transform or upgrade track and appliances along most of the 85 miles, Madison-Milwaukee.
Chicago-Milwaukee track upgrades for fast trains will be a separate project, although Talgo trains will begin service on that corridor of steadily growing ridership, possibly as early as 2011. Its present 79-mph maximum speed for Amtrak will apply, although the Talgo trains will be 110-mph capable.
Echoing a viewpoint akin to Milwaukee mockery of KRM commuter trains, state Sen. Alberta Darling reacted, "This is not the time to start saying we want to play with trains." Sen. Darling, representing north suburban Milwaukee, holds ranking seniority on the Budget Committee and holds assigned to the Joint Finance Committee. A press release by the party bitterly opposed to Gov. Doyle, described as "scathing" by WisPolitics.com, belittled the 80 or so assembly jobs the purchase will bring to southern Wiscconsin. It places all responsibilty on Governor Doyle for loss of more than 100,000 jobs during the past year, apparently unaware that a worldwide ecomonic pullback harshly affecting much of USA employmnent crescendoed only months ago, asserting, "Eighty new jobs is a couple hours worth of damage control for Doyle's policies."
Janesville, where General Motors recently closed its longest operating assembly plant (since 1919), and Milwaukee are two locations Talgo USA has taken under consideration for train coach assembly. Janesville assembly workers built premium models for GM, such as SUVs, prior to its shutdown.
Talgo contract assailed, then approved (Aug. 5) - Outcries against spending reverberated across southern Wisconsin as familiar critics of train travel and train commuting spoke in outrage against Governor Doyle for OKing Wisconsin DOT contracting to purchase two Talgo trains. The Wisconsin State Journal, Madison's daily newspaper, stoked an initially modest controversy with a Sunday editorial insisting Gov. Doyle should admit to a spending error for not seeking competing bids before awarding the purchase contract. State Rep. Robin Vos (Racine county) joined the chorus of criticism with Sen. Alberta Darling (north suburbs of Milwaukee). Both sit on the budget-writing and -approving Joint Committee on Finance, and did during years when their party held a majority. The current Joint Finance Committee later approved the purchase contract on a party-line vote, with one co-chair voicing some dismay that the governor's office proceeded unilaterally, then issued hasty notice to the committee of its purchase contract intention.
Party-line votes stalled attempts to fund the next KRM phase during the 2007-08 Legislature, declining attempts by then-Minority Leader Jim Kreuser to advance it. Majority control of the state Assembly changed with outcome of the November, 2008 election and expectations for KRM rose early in 2009, including among five corporate executives of Racine companies speaking to the Joint Committee on Finance in late March.
Racine B.U.S. leads local dialogue to improve usefulness, intends to expedite access at Sturtevant Amtrak station (Aug. 7) - Racine Belle Urban System (B.U.S) is weighing service improvements, including to/from Sturtevant Amtrak station, as households seek more cost-effective commuting and local travel alternatives instead of total dependence on personal cars / pickup trucks / SUVs. Racine Journal Times reports access to the Amtrak station, seven miles west of downtown Racine, holds little appeal due to bus routing and transfers.
The B.U.S. transfer hub is located one mile west of downtown, adjoining the intended KRM train station. KRM remains mired as the SERTA board continues grappling with dissonance among the six regional parties that began a SEWRPC study of its feasibility in 1997.
Tri-county RTA for southeastern Wisconsin could begin as property tax relief channel for existing local bus operations (Sept. 8) - Taking a page from the state capital's Dane county game plan for expanding transit, Governor Jim Doyle unveiled this Tuesday afternoon a proposal for legislators to weigh: a county by county "sub-RTA" as starting point for Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee, which later would evolve into a multi-mode, multi-county Regional Transit Authority. (Dane county previously differed with city of Madison, current operator of the state's second-largest local bus service, about how to proceed until spiraling gas prices, among other factors, overrode interminable battling and prominent leaders forged a compromise. Dane county transit goals now taking shape envision more extensive bus routes and a commuter train route.) For the state's most populous county and two counties neighboring it to the south, Governor Doyle proposes an umbrella RTA which initially will simply begin fostering collaboration among three well-established local bus operations, MCTS (Milwaukee), BUS (Racine) and KAT (Kenosha) while taking a direct role implementing the tri-county commuter train proposal, KRM. The tri-county SERTA would become the fourth regional transit authority enacted during Gov. Doyle's tenure, according to his published statement.
Presently, all three local bus services in those principal cities and parts of their respective counties rely on the property tax, with additional funding from state DOT and from nearby municipalities and companies needful of bus service. Regional transit planning was first encouraged by federal enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, commnly dubbed 'ice-tee') and subsequent fund allocations sponsored those federal polciies. The populous Milwaukee-Racine-Kenosha(-Chicago) corridor was not specified for consideration in that Act of Congress, although three other corridors affecting Wisconsin wre specified. Apparently, lack of a regional transit authority has adversely affected Wisconsin's southeastern cities, while other regions elsewhere received significant federal supplements to local transit funds. Gov. Doyle's goal is gradual assimilation of three disparate bus operations into the proposed RTA, which is already assigned lead role for the proposed tri-county KRM commuter train operation.
The new approach, which differs somewhat from several RTA formulations crafted by legislators earlier in 2009, fulfills more of Gov. Doyle's original intentions for a transit agency distinct from any broader measures to ease property tax burden. In particular, Milwaukee legislators won acceptance among their colleagues for a sales tax to fund transit plus modest substitution for general fund expenses, which currently all draw on the property tax. Gov. Doyle sidetracked that approach with a line item veto late in June, puzzling many transit supporters and Milwaukee voters, who narrowly endorsed a sales tax increase for multiple county purposes.
Regional transit 'summit' draws surrounding interest, less in core city (Sept. 18) - More than one hundred transit-knowledgeable people converged on eastside Milwaukee, nearby Summerfest grounds where Chicago & Northwestern Rwy. passenger trains once traveled to and from Chicago, to attend a 'summit' assemblage hosted by the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin (UEDA of WI), the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the city of Milwaukee. Exhibits by employment proponents, social service organizations, a law firm and several major transit proponents greeted attendees, signalling the breadth of interest in the announced meeting topic: "Regional Transit: get on board."
"A summit on regional transit sounded something like a pep rally for public transportation by the time it wrapped up Friday," Kenosha News asserted in its front page news account.
Racine Journal Times enthused in a similar opening to its coverage of the Milwaukee program, "Wisconsin needs to invest in transit if the state wants to move forward, according to Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology."
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett directed much of his opening remarks to merits of streetcar transit for densely populated urban districts. He described the "last mile" lag by Milwaukee transit isolates various urban destinations from the present and planned airline, train and bus travel networks. One local TV station noted his streetcar interest in reporting on the "economic development summit" while overlooking the keynote speaker, Mr. Bernstain, his topic and the wide-ranging question and answer period late in the morning, three hours after the session began. No other Milwaukee news accounts are available online.
Secretary Michael Morgan, Dept. of Administration, spoke on behalf of Governor Jim Doyle and noted the WisDOT quest for 110-mph Amtrak service linking Milwaukee to Madison and Chicago will strengthen usefulness of southeastern Wisconisn regional transit. He suggested eventual inclusion of all seven counties in an RTA, which would make it congruent with the scope of SEWRPC planning.
Keynote speaker Mister Scott Bernstein ranged across a few familiar points, echoing his January presentation to a south suburban audience at MATC-South in Oak Creek. Then he proceeded into fresh aspects affecting southeastern Wisconsin, its job losses as manufacturers closed here, its ranking nationally in the bottom quarter of regions economic vitality, repeatedly urging greater attention to transit. In particular, greater attention to adequate regional transit funding, in contrast to Wisconsin's present outdated reliance on local property taxes to fund transit.
Twelve years ago, a previous, larger assemblage heard speakers promoting transportation for Milwakuee and surrounding communities was hosted by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and featured Mayor John Norquist and Gov. Tommy Thompson emissary William Klauser. Mayor Norquist presentd his regionally famous slide show contrasting older, walkable neighborhoods versus suburban growth most notable for its acres of concete and asphalt. Mister Klauser, the governor's aide, spoke more generally about travel and cargo shipment need. Two years later, a spending compromise was reached among Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament, Mayor Norquist and Governor Thompson to allocate idle federal transit funds on several projects. Ninety-one million dollars remainewd unspent after that 1999 agreement.
Majority of appointees named to SERTA Board (Sept. 29) - Announcement in Kenosha of Karl Ostby and John Antaramian appointment to the newly forming Southeastern (Wisconsin) Regional Transit Authority (SERTA) board raises its composition to two-thirds complete. Kenosha county board chairman Joe Clark appointed Mr. Ostby to continue participation in regional transit decisions, in which he became conversant as chairman of the previous interim RTA board. Mayor Keith Bosman noted to Kenosha News that Mr. Antaramian, his predecessor, stood prominently as his choice because of involvement for the past 16 years. As mayor, John Antaramian was instrumental in beginning focus on expanding transit to include commuter trains, working with Racine mayor Jim Smith and his successors to sustain study and planning for regional transit.
Appointees for Racine are Jody Karls, named by recently elected Mayor John Dickert, and Jon Henderson, a Racine county businessman appointed by county board chairman Peter Hansen. Mister Karls also brings past interim RTA board service to the new board, which Racine Journal Times reported was decisive in Mayor Dickert's choice. Mister Henderson "loves this community," Chairman Hansen told Journal Times, and has helped start a new construction company based in Sturtevant.
Milwaukee county board chairman Lee Holloway has designated county Supervisor Michael Mayo, Sr. and himself as the two Milwaukee county members of the SERTA board. Wisconsin Assembly Bill 75, the biennial budget enacted in late June, specifies Milwaukee city and county will each appoint two board members; Racine and Kenosha appoint one each by city and county.
Governor Jimm Doyle, who defined the current focus of SERTA on advancing preparations for KRM commuter trains, has not yet announced his appointee. Mayor Tom Barrett, city of Milwaukee, also has yet to appoint two board members. Gov. Doyle caused some dismay among some Milwaukeeans last June by striking with his line-item veto AB-75 provisions which intended to buttress funding for Milwaukee County Transit System bus operations with a sales tax of 0.50 percent and another 0.15 pecent for general uses, such as parks upkeep and public safety. Mayor Barrett has been mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed Governor Doyle at the November, 2010 election.
Governor Doyle subsequently appointed Julia Taylor, president, Greater Milwaukee Committee, to the SERTA board. Mayor Barrett named appointees Chris Layden and Earl Buford.
Legislators listen, governor proposes again (Oct. 22) - Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association (WURTA) followed its Sept. 8 praise for Governor Jim Doyle's initiatives advancing regional transit authorities with a day of direct member contact with legislators in Madison yesterday. In its press release, WURTA Chairman David J. Mumma noted that "WURTA has long advocated for a comprehensive RTA plan which allows regions throughout the state to form transit authorities which are not restricted by municipal boundaries, but rather encompass population bases and their travel patterns. RTAs would also possess the funding authority necessary to pay the expenses currently covered by municipal budgets, and remove transit from local property tax rolls." Direct contact by transit advocates proceeded concurrent with draft language circulating among interested legislators to modify June enactment of statutory powers for SERTA, the permanent tri-county RTA assigned responsibility for implementing the KRM commuter train proposal vetted by SEWRPC and the interim Southeastern Wisconsin RTA, 2005-2008.
SE Wisconsin RTA board launched into shallow water, crosswinds (Dec. 19) - Following a get-acquainted meeting in November, the newly formed board for Southeastern Wisconsin RTA (SERTA) assembled yesterday at the state's largest, busiest airport on Milwaukee's southside to confront its work: oversee progress, from plan to operation, of Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter train service, abbreviated KRM. News reports portrayed a halting start, with the chairman elected by a one-vote margin among the nine board members and defeat of resumption of the $2 per rental car fee accruing under the previous interim RTA board. That interim board disbanded in October; the new board expects to consider a car rental fee again in January, after a more specific KRM proposal is presented.
Wisconsin's most widely read newspaper based in the state's most populous county, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reported again that federal participation in support for the project hinges on viable local bus connections with the KRM stations -- and Milwaukee County Transit System teeters near major service cutbacks early in 2010. Its bus fleet has skipped customary replacement cycles for several years, too.
Late in 2006, Milwaukee county executive Scott Walker surprised KRM planners and the interim RTA board with sudden objection to funding the KRM proposal. A scramble to select alternate funding ensued to replace the sales tax informally preferred earlier in 2006. By November, 2008, Milwaukee county voters narrowly approved an advisory referendum for a sales tax intended to revive MCTS, augment public safety, and stave off cutbacks to parks maintenance. Now in late 2009, a 4-5 vote failing to reinstate the $2 fee to continue funding the board and SERTA itself counted all Milwaukee board members voting against it, signalling its policy makers prefer rescuing bus service for its own sake rather than as an initial phase to a broader expansion of transit across the tri-county region. Kenosha News reports SERTA Chairman Karl Ostby expects revisiting that minimal level of funding at the next meeting, in January, after the authority has a clearer idea of KRMís costs.
Meanwhile, legislators in Madison continue drafting enabling legislation defining statewide how new RTAs will form. Some legislators from the tri-county KRM region envision that bill affecting how SERTA will function, although it was created just six months ago by state statute.
New round of support from area CEOs, labor leader boosts Gov. Doyle's regional transit goals (Jan. 22) - Opposition to any funding alternatives affecting overnight hotel/motel accommodations surfaced early in January and was promptly countered by community supporters of KRM commuters trains, revitalized bus services and regional transit when Gov. Jim Doyle headlined a South Milwaukee press conference on Tuesday, January 19. News coverage reflected the varied and distinct local goals Gov. Doyle and the Legislature must somehow incorporate:
Past opposition to a rental car surcharge, to the so-called "wheel tax," and to a one-half percent sales tax (conforming to statewide exclusions for food and other basic family needs) directed drafters of legislation toward yet another funding option that local officials could choose to pay transit expenses instead of reliance on property taxes. CEOs, organized labor councils, environmental groups, and a host of others listed by TransitNOW consistently endorse property tax relief among multiple motives for improving transit regionally under a single agency. Two long-time critics of any taxation specific for funding transit reiterated their mutual theme. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a candidate seeking to succeed Gov. Doyle, asserted to Journal Sentinel that the latest RTA proposal by Governor Doyle and legislators "is a slap in the face to the taxpayers here in Milwaukee County." Rep. Robin Vos, elected by Racine county voters residing outside its two largest cities, repeated his belief that newly collected funds will go only for commuter trains and alleged to Journal Times that "It's a nice thing if you don't care about the fact 80 percent of it subsidized by taxpayers." His denunciations to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel were reported as follows: "Vos claimed the bill's new taxes would go to commuter rail; in fact, those taxes would go to buses, not trains."
The latest proposed legisation will also admit into the existing SERTA agency other counties in the Southeastern Wisconsin Planning Region (SEWRPC) premised on fulfilling certain qualifying criteria showing local readiness to fund transit.
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