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Wisconsin and commuter trains

Wisconsin and commuter trains

October, 2000

In September, 2000 a Kenosha News writer, who focuses on business news, wrote in his weekly column that adoption by Brown county voters of a half-cent per dollar sales tax to aid remodeling of Lambeau Field and prior legislative action which imposed a one-tenth cent per dollar sales tax on five counties for replacement of Milwaukee County Stadium might set an example for taxing Kenoshans to support commuter trains.

 His column appeared less than three weeks after a blue ribbon panel appointed by Governor Thompson held its monthly meeting in Racine, at Wingspread thanks to an invitation by S.C. Johnson Company. The columnist speculated about a sales tax several months before that panel will complete its deliberations and recommend possible courses of action to the governor.

KenRail webmaster and newsletter editor Norman Siler wrote in reply to that column, explaining the present progress of the governor's task force with the added purpose of easing any unfounded anxieties about selective taxation. His op-ed article for Kenosha News is reproduced here for readers beyond the circulation of that newspaper, as published 10 October 2000 with the advice and editing of its editorial page editor.

Recently, a Kenosha News columnist wrote about the tax imposed on five counties for building Miller Park and about the Brown County vote for a one-half cent tax to renovate Lambeau Field. The writer then linked those taxes for sports entertainment to prospects in southeast Wisconsin for extending commuter train service north to Racine and Milwaukee from Kenosha, where Illinois Metra trains presently stop.
Several clarifying points should be made:

    (1) No tax is planned for train service, although a task force established by Gov. Thompson in 1999 recommended funding high speed train service between Madison and Milwaukee, with likely extension of those trains to Chicago, in the future.
    (2) The same task force is currently examining funding arrangements for commuter trains in other states, aiming to recommend by December a funding system for Wisconsin which can be applied to prospective commuter train operations. (Dane county is studying a metro rail proposal and three lakeshore counties, including Kenosha, are awaiting the completion next year of a commuter train study, WISERIDE. Trains may also be sought in a prospering corridor between Chippewa Falls/Eau Claire and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.) Task force recommendations will guide -- but not decide -- the prospects for imposing any tax, statewide or regionally, to pay for commuter trains.
    (3) Taxes underwriting a sports stadium are a new phenomenon in Wisconsin; taxes for transportation are as old as highways.
    (4) In 1992, Wisconsin voters amended the state constitution to pay for train projects through the Department of Transportation, just as highways, airports and harbors already were. Statewide, about 57 percent favored equal consideration for train projects; in Kenosha county almost 70 percent voted for amendment.

A casual observer might speculate about a tax someday being sought for commuter trains here. But equally valid speculation would be that a region or county contributes so much to the entire state that a statewide funding arrangement is warranted.
That has not been the case for Miller Park or Lambeau Field.
It has been the case for countless transportation projects managed from Madison by DOT, for highways of all sizes, for airports large and small, for the few harbors still active in the Badger state. Only commuter train projects, eight years after amending the state constitution, are left beyond the scope of DOT's funding and planners.
The WISERIDE study for SouthEast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and a similar evaluation in Dane County, along with the governor's task force may recommend a change of the separate consideration of trains by DOT.
None of that foreshadows a tax on Kenosha alone for commuter trains.
  Norman Siler

A 2002 postscript
January 12, 2002

Ten years will have passed in April, since the state constitution was amended by a 57 percent majority statewide to fund train projects under Wisconsin Department of Transportation auspices. That authority has been exercised sparingly, and primarily in support for freight carriers and for Milwaukee-Chicago Amtrak trains, the Hiawatha Service, which are funded jointly with Illinois DOT. The governor's task force did not in 2000 match its1999 enthusiasm for110-mile per hour trains with a comparably favorable recommendation for establishing commuter train service.

The WISERIDE study in the lakeshore corridor between Milwaukee and the Illinois stateline, south of Kenosha, continues. Prospects for commuter trains are in flux in Dane county, in Rock county as a 16-mile extension from Harvard, Ill. of existing Metra service, in the Fox River Valley (Fond du Lac-Green Bay or -Marinette), and east of Hudson, which likely will see St. Paul and Minneapolis jobs in neighboring Minnesota become too difficult to reach from Wisconsin homes via the congested expressways of that 'twin cities' metropolis.

Foremost on Wisconsin DOT's agenda is reconstruction of the central Milwaukee expressways, particularly the Marquette interchange -- the actual and indispensible travel and shipping hub for SE Wisconsin and for major metropolises everywhere west of Lake Michigan. But commuter trains able to ease added burden on city thoroughfares during years of reconstruction, able to help sustain access to downtown Milwaukee, have yet to be anointed by DOT planners in Madison.

As legislators answer Governor McCallum's call to a special session to deal with a billion dollar-plus budget shortfall, there's scant interest in cutting even more deeply to fund new modes of daily travel. However, trains are acknowledged as the economic mode for commuting in metropolises throughout the world. Modern trains were among the short list of items cited by New York Times in a Novermber 11, 2001 editorial urging state and federal infusions to remake New York City:

“We are already pitifully behind cities like London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Paris,
which have each spent heavily on ultramodern subways and high-speed trains
that will support and enrich those cities for decades to come.”

For SE Wisconsin, the most cost-effective train investment will be in existing, under-utilized freight tracks upgraded for use by commuter trains. There is no clear policy path to achieving that goal – yet. But examples of other metroplitan commuting systems abound, and trains are prominent in them – even as close as Chicago.
– by Norman Siler

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