A reserved sense of optimism was the prevailing feeling at the Milwaukee meeting of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP) and the Midwest High-speed Rail Association last Saturday. The meeting gave a small albeit revealing insight into the politics and plans for passenger transportation in the Midwest. With clearly displayed feelings of bitterness, resentment, and in spite of cautious optimism it was easy to think that improving passenger rail in the region remains a nearly hopeless endeavor. However, there is also certainly reason to think that we’ve only reached a brief period of resistance to consistently forward momentum to reinvent the rail networks that was once the backbone of America’s transportation infrastructure.
Participants heard about and discussed the status of passenger rail in the state of Wisconsin, the status of Milwaukee’s fledgling streetcar network, and proposed improvements to the Chicago-Milwaukee passenger rail corridor. Other speakers included transportation journalist Don Phillips, who currently writes for Trains Magazine and formerly wrote for the Washington Post. DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman also gave a brief introduction to his new book “Terminal Town“, a history of Chicago’s long relationship with transportation. While the presentations themselves were not always exceptionally revealing (most of the information is already available online), the overall process shows extensive work ahead and an obvious need for the transportation planning community to push harder on few things: 1) put more pressure on government to respond positively to transportation planning efforts and get the responsive politicians in office 2) more public engagement is absolutely necessary as there is a clear lack of public understanding about how transportation can function in a socially and economically as well as environmentally beneficial way.
There was definitely some bad at the meeting. The first speaker was the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. His hour-long presentation and Q&A revolved around the status of passenger rail transportation in Wisconsin. At the moment, only three passenger rail services are available: two are from Amtrak, the Hiawatha between Chicago and Milwaukee and the once daily Empire Builder, which connects Chicago with the Twin Cities and on to Seattle via Milwaukee and LaCrosse. The third is Metra’s UP-North service between Chicago and Kenosha. According to Gottlieb, the priority of the State of Wisconsin is to invest in existing services and includes only short-term and intermediate-term plans for passenger rail. Although there are existing long-range plans and proposals to bring true high-speed trains to Wisconsin (that is >150mph) and connecting Madison, Eau Claire, and Green Bay to the existing passenger routes there was little to no evidence that WiscDOT has any intention of moving forward with these in the near future.
The only concrete projects Gottlieb capably discussed were a proposal to add 3 additional round trip trains on the Hiawatha. Two would be semi-express calling only at Chicago Union Station, Gen. Mitchell Airport, and Milwaukee. He also mentioned a potential addition of one more daily round-trip between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago using Empire Builder infrastructure. While it is hard to fault Gottlieb and WiscDOT on efforts to improve and expand existing service there is no excuse for the blatant antipathy for create a solid long-range plan that includes streetcars in Madison and Milwaukee, high-speed service on a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Twin Cities route, regional service from Milwaukee to Green Bay, and commuter routes between Madison and Milwaukee and Milwaukee to Kenosha. When pressed about why WiscDOT is pushing for more highway infrastructure he cited a need to help ease the pressure on the system and a need to–wait for it–plan for the future. When asked why not ease pressure on the road systems by investing in rail transportation he struggled to find an answer. Indeed, he tried to use autonomous vehicles as reason to invest in roads. He blustered when the fallacy of that argument was pointed out as it is not drivers that necessarily cause traffic, but the number of vehicles on the road and he was additionally reminded that transportation planning is about more than traffic, but also about environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
The following speakers, journalist Don Phillips and Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman, gave somewhat pessimistic accounts of the state of Amtrak and transportation politics nationally and locally. While what they had to say was not universal the gist of it was that 1) we cannot trust Amtrak to carry through with its duty to maintain and improve passenger rail in the US and 2) opposition to public transportation has become almost religiously ideological to the point that any effort to improve it is fought tooth and nail. The former remarks are based on what Phillips had to say about his work on Amtrak and its President Joe Boardman in particular. Phillips remarks revealed disappointment and frustration in the management of the country’s passenger rail service. He had little trust in the organization and certainly doesn’t seem overly confident in its future. Strong management is what Amtrak needs and has needed for much too long now, according to Phillips. The latter comments came from Bauman in a 40 minute presentation about that status of Milwaukee’s streetcar. The plan, which for the most part was ready to go years ago was subsequently derailed by opposition from conservative politicians in Wisconsin including Gov. Scott Walker. This is what Bauman described as a stringent ideological opposition to any transportation projects that included rail in some regard. As he put it, a century of laws and precedent designed to help infrastructure be built was abandoned to stop the Milwaukee streetcar and this project alone.
After this, the sense of discontentment had grown. The presentations by the Midwest High-speed Rail Association did good work of improving the feeling that real work is being done to improve passenger rail in the US. They presented realistic goals for the future of rail and high-speed rail in particular. Plans to incrementally develop things like passing tracks, parallel freight and passenger lines, grade-separation, and stations are all underway in different places. There remains confusion about what these types of systems will look like however: some audience members were concerned that the emphasis on rail-air connections to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Some proposed using high-speed rail as a reason to make Milwaukee’s Gen. Mitchell Airport a more important international hub, regardless of how unrealistic that is based on the realities at hand. Others couldn’t understand why anybody would want to go from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Madison. That comment was representative where opposition of rail has been strong: places like Waukesha and Jefferson County, Milwaukee’s suburbs. Apparently, the systems wasn’t sold as something that would eventually go to the Twin Cities, which is somehow more appealing than a direct rail link between Wisconsin’s largest urban areas.
A stronger communications strategy is needed to positively push this work forward with the public. Conceptually, the ideas are there. The big and bold thinkers are there. The hope, the examples, the financing schemes are all there. At this point, the biggest problem is going to be selling these ideas to the public.Organizations like MHSRA or WisARP need to develop ways to preach not to their own choirs, but the public.Organizations like MHSRA or WisARP need to develop ways to preach not to their own choirs, but the public.
The pressure politicians, municipalities, and private groups feel to increase investment in multi-modal transportation infrastructure needs to come from a broader base than it does now. The likes of freight companies, environmentalists, proponents of smart urban growth, business people, and the traveling public all have a stake in things like improved passenger rail. They need to create solid proposals for systems that will serve the needs of as many people possible. Strong recognizable, charismatic, and passionate faces need to be put on this project. Honestly, the issue needs some sex appeal. It’s now time to really think about making the big sell. Without public support and awareness this is all for nothing.
More than ever it is about making the public care–really care.