Fearful Symmetries

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16 April, 2009

The Importance of Being Convenient

Madison's prospects of once again being served by intercity passenger rail are the best they've been in decades. Gov. Doyle is looking to bring new service to Wisconsin and upgrade existing routes by using as much federal money as possible. If Madison does get an Amtrak stop, it would likely be out at the airport instead of downtown.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently ran an article which described this news as disappointing to some commuters.

On the drive from Waukesha to Madison, Roger Danielsen has often wondered why he couldn't take a train instead.

But now that the state is pushing for $519 million in federal money to build a 110-mph passenger rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, Danielsen says the planned train still wouldn't lure him out of his car.

The reason: Madison's new train station would be built at Dane County Regional Airport, on the city's east side, not downtown near Capitol Square or the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. And Danielsen, a Waukesha graphic artist who travels regularly to Madison on business, is one of a number of state residents complaining about that decision.

'If traveling to Madison, what possible reason would I want to be dropped off at the Dane County Regional Airport, miles from downtown?' Danielsen wrote in a recent e-mail to state and federal officials. 'If snail transportation to get from the airport / I have to take local bus to where I wanted to be in the first place downtown, you just put me back in my car again, time-wise and convenience-wise.'


Why would the stop be at the airport instead of someplace downtown? "Currently, the state Department of Transportation has expressed 'a strong preference' for putting a high-speed rail stop between Minneapolis and Milwaukee at the Dane County Regional Airport" as

"To reach downtown Madison, trains would have to slow down on their way through numerous crossings, then back up all the way to the airport to leave town, Wade said. That also would boost the cost of the route, he said. Wade did not have figures on how much time or money a downtown spur would add."

While each side has a valid point, it would be wise to look at a recent survey by HNTB which reveals:

"The survey showed Americans would be most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71 percent), less expensive fares (69 percent) and faster trains (55 percent) with the introduction of high-speed rail in their region."

Now, if you put the Amtrak stop downtown, passengers on the train whose destination is not Madison will see an increase in travel time due to the maneuvers the train has to pull in order to get back out of town. Commuters from the Milwaukee area, such as Mr. Danielsen above, will see convenience go down as they're left out at the airport when they want to be downtown. When I worked at the state off the Square, I knew of a few Milwaukee residents who took Badger Bus to get to work in downtown Madison. Even more used the services of the state carpool van. What is the lure for these people to use the train if it's going to drop them off miles from their destination?

The survey also found that

more than half of Americans (54 percent) would choose modern high-speed trains over automobile (33 percent) and air travel (13 percent) if fares and travel time were about the same.

Both the van and the bus get these people right downtown where they work and they do so in a manner that is probably going to be cheaper than the train. It's $44 round trip from Milwaukee to Chicago currently on the Hiawatha so I would look for a similar fair on the Milwaukee-Madison route. I can buy a round trip ticket for a Badger Bus ride online for $35.00.

While buses and ride share programs win on price and convenience, trains would theoretically be faster – by about 20 minutes or so. But that time is eaten away by having to commute from the airport which would also incur an additional expense.

The transportation planners who are devising passenger service for Madison should carefully consider the results of the HNTB survey with convenience being a big factor for potential riders of the rail. I suspect convenience would be maximized if the Amtrak station were positioned downtown as most commuters would likely have a destination there or on campus. Plus people looking to visit Madison for leisure purposes or attend a convention would also probably be aiming for downtown. Mayor Dave is right when he observes that it's a relatively short distance from Dane County Regional Airport to downtown Madison. (By contrast, it's about 3 times the distance from O'Hare to downtown Chicago. And traffic is much worse.) Still, 5-6 miles is 5-6 miles when competing against a stop at Monona Terrace.

However, if Madison is going to take one for the team, then Metro Transit is going to have to step up to the plate. Currently, only route 20 serves the airport and that will take people to the north transfer point before they can go anywhere else. Either Metro starts a shuttle service of some kind or a private company will have to because route 20 is not particularly convenient and taking a cab is quite an expense. Current options dramatically lessen the appeal of the train for commuters.
|| Palmer, 10:16 AM

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