Thursday, September 29th, 2016

Winning the train debate station-to-station

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Our friends at the state DOT have decided to toss the horse’s head into the bed of the Oconomowoc Common Council, saying the train station was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

The state Department of Transportation has dropped plans for a high-speed rail station in Oconomowoc, claiming city officials said they didn’t want one.But city officials disputed that statement Wednesday, saying they never withdrew support for the station. They said they had only raised questions about costs and financing for it.

“We were asking questions, trying to gather more information, and for that we were eliminated,” City Administrator Diane Gard said.

Oconomowoc was to be one of three intermediate stops between downtown Milwaukee and downtown Madison on a planned $810 million rail line. Stations are also slated for Brookfield and Watertown. Starting in 2013, the train would offer six round trips daily between Wisconsin’s two largest cities, although not all trains would stop at the smaller stations.

In a letter Tuesday to Oconomowoc Mayor James Daley, state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi said the city had expressed support for a station since 2000, and had been included in the train plans on that basis.

But after an Aug. 2 workshop in Oconomowoc, Busalacchi wrote, “You have indicated you no longer have interest in a station in the city of Oconomowoc.  . . .  Due to the lack of interest by the city, we are discontinuing further discussions on a planned station in Oconomowoc.”

If the whole state shows a lack of interest in the project, will the state DOT under Governor Jim Doyle cancel the entire project?

Unfortunately for Doyle and his designated successor Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett the train issue has become really unpopular. People are showing up to meetings and asking tough questions like, who is going to ride this thing, and, how much is it really going to cost? Doyle and Barrett can’t afford tough questions like that because Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is using the issue against them in the campaign for governor. And the more there is discussion about the unpopular not-really-high-speed trains, the more Walker gets to remind audiences he will cancel the train.

So Doyle and his DOT are sending Oconomowoc (and through them, Brookfield) a message: stop asking questions.

Residents of Oconomowoc should hold their elected officials accountable and demand they continue to ask questions about the cost of the train system and the stations. Remember, the everything over $5 million of the construction costs of the station are the responsibility of the residents of Oconomowoc, and all the operating costs of the station. They’re already dealing with the boondoggle known as Pabst Farms. How much more can the Oconomowoc taxpayer endure?

If it means not getting a train station, c’est la vie. (The train supporters will like me using French.)

Meanwhile, residents of Brookfield should be asking some very tough questions, too. Brian Fraley was at last night’s meeting in Brookfield and reports the crowd was 80 percent opposed to the train. Here are some of the unanswered questions from last night’s meeting:

  • The DOT has been all over the place as far as what the required size of the Brookfield station would be. Whether the proposed station would cost 17.9 million or as much as $30 million would depend on the parking requirements (which have ranged from around 250 to as high as 550).
  • The state will only commit to paying $5 million toward construction of the station. This includes roadway and safety upgrades as well as land acquisition costs.
  • Brookfield would be stuck with annual maintenance costs for the station, which could range from a low of $30,000 annually to a high in excess of $100,000 a year.
  • Due to the fact the train will share tracks with freight trains, the train will not be high speed for some time.
  • The DOT claims traffic disruption on most cross streets would be no more significant that a typical stoplight, although it would take ‘a little longer’ at the intersections closer to the station.
  • DOT anticipates but would not guarantee the labor to construct the line would be from Wisconsin-based companies.
  • City officials do not anticipate the need to widen Brookfield Road to accommodate any increase in traffic.
  • DOT officials estimate 124,000 passengers per year will either get on or get off the train in Brookfield.
  • No figures were available for the increased cost of road maintenance or police protection that would be necessitated by the foot and car traffic due to the development of the Brookfield station.
  • The fare costs are unknown. (However, in its application for federal funds the state estimated the cost of a ticket from Milwaukee to Madison to be between $22 and $33 each way.)
  • The amount of annual state subsidies to operate the train is unknown.
  • The per-passenger mile cost of the route is unknown.
  • Any federal monies spent on the plan would have to be returned if the line and station is not operational for 20 years.

I’ve now attended a few meetings regarding the Madison to Milwaukee rail project and a pattern has developed.

What is known is the amount of federal taxes will be used (up to $810 million).

What is known is how much the state taxpayers will pay to construct the station in Brookfield ($5 million).

But there are so many unknowns. Including, it has to be noted, whether the new Governor will go through with the project. Barrett says he will, Walker has been adamant that he will not (to the point of even running television ads about that pledge) Neumann has agreed with Walker.

Given the uncertainties, why would local officials green light the use of even one dime of precious tax dollars on this boondoggle, at this time?

Fraley calls for a referendum to be held in Brookfield before any commitment is made to build the train station. Probably a good idea, and consistent with the number of referendums on proposed RTAs in Wisconsin. Oconomowoc, if the state changes its mind, should consider having a referendum, too.

Meanwhile, at least one Democrat, Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki, is saying he would like to scrap the idea of building any stations in Waukesha County because we’re unworthy. While it’s clear that Czarnezki’s motives are more the result of a general dislike of anyone west of 124th street, Czarnezki may become the most popular Democrat in Waukesha County. However, given the financial failure of one train station in Milwaukee, would Milwaukee County taxpayers or Wauwatosa residents be really excited about subsidizing two such losing operations? While it would make it easier for county bureaucrats to journey to the government Mecca of Wisconsin that is Madison (expensed to the taxpayers, of course), I’m sure Wauwatosa would like to put the issue to referendum first as well.

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