Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

22 July, 2010

Get On the Bus Gus

The Wisconsin State Journal ran an article last week entitled "Who should vote on commuter rail sales tax" which gives a brief overview of the problem of setting up a referendum vote for the tax. What caught my eye was the first paragraph:

Some Dane County Board members are pushing to hold a countywide referendum this November asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for commuter rail.

To the best of my knowledge, any money raised for commuter rail would be put towards the plan envisioned by the Transport 2020 group. A map of the proposed route and more information on the plan can be found in this PDF document. The main rationale behind the county's application for federal funding for the project is that Madison and Dane County are growing and are expected to continue to do so. Madison is the site of many jobs and the percentage of people commuting into the city to work is also expected to grow. Thusly, with an isthmus already experiencing congestion, things are only going to get worse. While I am generally supportive of rail, if asked to raise taxes to support the Transport 2020 rail plan, I'm not sure I would do so.

The problem is that the plan puts the rail line on existing freight rail tracks. Now, I'm neither a transportation nor urban planner, but it seems to me that this scenario makes the freight tracks the center of gravity of the whole situation instead of commuter preference/convenience. Furthermore rail tends to bring with it development but are the freight corridors where we want it? In other words, the plan is to make do with what we have instead of trying to build a rail system around the needs of riders. Plus we're potentially dropping the ability to maximize development.

Plus the route map just doesn't make sense to me. Commuter rail is about getting people from outside the city into it yet the route includes a few stops in the industrial no-man's land on the isthmus. Plus the Shorewood Hills stop seems superfluous. To me, the route wants to have its commuter aspect plus being a form of intra-city travel. It features 17 stops in 16 miles. Looking at Metra routes (Chicagoland's commuter rail) I see that only one comes anywhere near have 1 stop per mile. Commuter rail is about moving people into and out of the city, not within it. Hence my view that the current plan is a hybrid. This may prove to be advantageous but it may also create a system that fails at being both.

In certain stretches, the freight tracks aren't very well suited for passenger train stops. The plan seems designed to get people to certain places very well but makes it more difficult for those who need to go elsewhere. Perhaps I'm old fashioned but, to me, stepping off a train (other than a streetcar/trolley) means that I should be at a place which also caters to other forms of public transportation. In Madison's case, train stops should have bus stops at them or be adjacent to them. But many of the train stops in the plan are not close to bus stops. Again, this is mainly because the tracks the route uses are for freight, not passenger rail.

This ignores one of the most important aspects of public transportation – convenience. If you want to simply drop off people on a certain street corner, fine. But commuter rail becomes more convenient when one is dropped off at a point where buses are also available. Convenience also means that generic passes should be available that work on both the train and the bus.

I'm just very reluctant to raise taxes or endorse a plan that doesn't know what it wants to be. (And I would assume that the plan would be altered to accommodate Amtrak service.) Part of me says, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right." But this would mean laying new track which is prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, going forward with the Transport 2020 plan gets our foot in the door and could lead to new and better passenger rail.

While I remain ambivalent on the whole thing, I am leaning towards an RTA which would emphasize improving bus service, in addition to bike paths, etc. Madison Metro is, overall, pretty good to my mind especially considering Madison's size. It runs after the sun goes down, has bike racks, they send out e-mail/text message rider alerts, have real time route info, etc. But there's surely more that can be done to improve it. Here are a few things I'd like to see:

1) Replace some of those Metro ads inside the buses and replace them with maps of the route that indicate each stop.

2) Improve routes that have a 60-minute service floor. Are buses so infrequent because few ride or do few ride because service is so infrequent? Perhaps ridership would increase if buses came every 30 minutes.

3) Investigate using articulated buses.

4) More Park'n'Ride lots. As the Transport 2020 plans notes, the future holds more people who live outside Madison coming into town to work. Accommodate them with more lots and routes serving them.

5) Investigate Bus Rapid Transit or at least the possibility of express routes which stop infrequently to get people from one side of town to the other relatively quickly.

6) Re-evaluate the transfer point system. It seems weird to me that an arterial street like Mineral Point Road cannot be traversed in its entirety and requires multiple buses to hit the stretches that are served by bus. Buses turn off of it east of the West Transfer Point leaving the block or two between Science Drive and Whitney Way without service. West of the Transfer Point route 67 only goes as far as Ganser Way while the 15 kicks in down the street at High Point. And this is on weekdays. From Ganser Way to Junction Road is completely unserved on weekends. To me as a commuter, making a main street full of shops and restaurants so difficult to traverse by bus is unacceptable. Perhaps the transfer points could be moved so that they don't act like artificial barriers when trying to get to the more outlying parts of the city. I get the impression that this works hand-in-hand with #5 to be the biggest obstacle to getting more riders. People need to be able to traverse long distances quicker.

7) Restore bus service to Monona Drive.

8) Keep a handful of routes operating later than they currently do on Fridays and Saturdays. Perhaps til 2AM. For me, it would be nice to be able to see a late film at the WI Film Festival and be able to take a bus home.

9) Seminole Highway and McKee Road in Fitchburg are virtual dead zones.

10) The RTA should work with the city to consider parking lots and ramps. Madison wants to build a 1,200 stall ramp across from the future Amtrak stop. How much of this is for train passengers and how much for the general public? City lots& ramps are dirt cheap and the more parking the city builds, the more it discourages bus ridership. When parking has the potential of being a pain and isn't cheap, the bus becomes a better option. It's easy to get to downtown Madison via bus but if parking is plentiful and cheap, people are going to drive.

11) More hybrid busses.

12) Eliminate redundancy. E.g. - Is route 10 really necessary when route 2 & 38 already cover the area?

Blah, blah, blah. Everyone has their own gripes. What are yours?

If someone could make a case to me that the Transport 2020 plan (or a variation thereof) is but a first step and provide a vision for future expansion, I'd like to hear it. I also want to hear someone tell me what conditions are good for rail vs. those best served by bus. Some members of the RTA want to immediately increase taxes because they're dead set on rail instead of making the case that Madison needs a light rail system and offering up a plan for inspection. My impression is that, for many, having rail here in Madison is a bid to be like Portland or is some attempt to pretend to be a big city, which Madison certainly is not. I want a rail system that works in Madison, not one simply for the sake of having one.

Madison Area Bus Advocates
|| Palmer, 3:04 PM


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