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Questions plague Dane County commuter rail

Paul Snyder
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Dane County’s plan for a regional transit authority bleeds a little more support with every question directed at how many local jobs a commuter-rail project would provide.

“You figure with a $250 million rail project, there would be a lot of jobs pumped into the local economy,” said David Trowbridge, project manager for the county’s Transport 2020 program, which is examining commuter rail. “But at this point, I have no idea if there are companies here that put in track upgrades or build railroads.”

Planners could get that information from an economic impact analysis, Trowbridge said, but he has not heard if the county or the city of Madison is planning an analysis or if an independent study will be requested. Transport 2020’s preliminary plans for a commuter rail show the project built approximately between Sun Prairie and Middleton.

The National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association lists only three Wisconsin firms of more than 200 national railroad contractors. None of the companies are based in the Dane County region.

But Ed Webb, vice president of Menomonee Falls-based Volkmann Railroad Builders Inc., said that does not mean Dane County firms would be shut out of building a commuter rail.

“There’s engineering, grading, bridge work,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do on that kind of project.”
But the project needs approval before contractors start considering work.

After Gov. Jim Doyle signed the state budget, which authorized the creation of a Dane County RTA, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the county could put the RTA question to voters in fall 2010.

Communities that would not be on the rail line have strongly opposed a Dane County RTA, which would raise money for the commuter rail. Residents in outlying communities argue they should not be forced to pay a half-cent sales tax increase for a project they likely would not use.

To make the project more amenable to voters throughout the county, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, added amendments to the state budget letting RTA money be used for county road projects and requiring a binding referendum to create the RTA.

Doyle vetoed both amendments.

Despite the vetoes, Erpenbach on Tuesday said he expects Cieslewicz and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk to treat the results of a nonbinding RTA referendum as if they were binding.

“I would be shocked if the county said ‘no,’ and they said, ‘Let’s put it together anyway,’” Erpenbach said.

“But the problem with a nonbinding referendum is you never know who’s going to be in office later.”

Had roads remained part of the RTA package, Erpenbach said, some jobs could have been guaranteed for Dane County road builders. But he said he does not know where railroad builders would come from.

Caron Kloser, an environmental planner with the Madison office of HNTB Corp., said her company would be interested in pursuing a commuter-rail project. HNTB handles planning and construction engineering work and has worked on transit projects in Seattle, Santa Fe, N.M., and San Jose, Calif.

Interest is fine, Trowbridge said, but answers are more important. An economic impact analysis, he said, will provide those answers.

“If leaders in the community are going to move forward with this, they need to let people know there can be a lot of benefits,” he said. “Right now, it’s not clear who would be constructing this.”


  1. It is also not clear at all if trains for Danes is acutally a solution to traffic congestion in Madison, the Isthmus and the beltline. Since Transport 2020’s own study states that traffic congestion will increase even with commuter trains, wouldn’t it make sense to actually ADDRESS the problem of traffic congestion? Addiong 9 diesel powered 80 ton Locomotives running 17 hours a day and stopping traffic on 58 streets in Madison 8,000 times a day is an idea for complete traffic gridlock on day one of the first train running. 96% of us use cars/trucks and buses how about updating our sorry and long ignored streets, roads and highways?

    The solutions: Upgrade the “F” rated (as in lousy) existing county highways which are about 25 years behind the curve of home building, population growth in and around Madison. Complete bypass highways AROUND Madison work. It has worked in cities across the nation and world. HWY 151 ramps right through Madison- by pass it.
    Take the bikeways off East Washington and University ave and add lanes for auto/truck bus traffic. There are new bike paths (on old RR routes) that are separate from those streets and yet nearby. Bikes moving 5-10 miles an hour in heavy traffic are an invitation to accidents and guess who dies when they collide?

    Encourage telecommuting- Today work at home telecommuting takes more drivers off the highway that all the transit systems.

    Over 5-8 years gradually move some of the Federal, State, county and maybe a few city offices OFF the Square area. For a small amount of cash computerized traffic lights that can respond to real time changes- football games, snow storms, etc can reduce traffic congestion at little cost.
    Forget the trains. Re-build and build bypass highways around Madison and deal with the problem of TRAFFIC congestion. Trains only make it worse.

  2. “But at this point, I have no idea if there are companies here that put in track upgrades or build railroads.” – David Trowbridge.

    What a statement. If you need a doctor and there isn’t one nearby, do you just put your cure on indefinite hold until such time as a doctor might set up in your immediate area?

    Get it built and stop nitpicking, already.

  3. Choo Choo Charlie

    Isn’t it interesting the array of articles in todays publication.
    1-Environmentalists questioning traffic count, as to continuing development concerns.
    2-Watertown banking on high speed rail boom.
    3-Questions plague Dane county rail system.

    So in close proximity; on one hand, we don’t have enough traffic to justify further development, but on the other hand, we do have enough of a need, to justify building a train ‘boom’ ie, boondoggle ‘needed for further development’, and at the same time we don’t know if it will solve congestion in Dane county.

    Well…which is it? The bottom line question that’s never REALISTICALLY asked or properly evaluated…who’s going to ride these trains, and do those numbers justify building the hugely expensive rail system? I suggest the answer is; not enough, and NO!

  4. Traffic congestion is only one of the problems that the T2020 project chose to address with their report. Many more important problems exist and I believe T2020 does a good job of addressing them.

    Unfortunately for Bill Richardson, as of this point in time there is no hard evidence that a commuter rail line will produce “complete traffic gridlock”. there was an early study that suggested a significant amount of congestion could be produced, but that study overestimated crossing times and did not factor in the effects of synchronizing traffic controls along the line in order to reduce potential delays. Bill also fails to mention that once in place, Commuter Rail may actually reduce congestion during significant congestion events by providing a guaranteed 19 minute trip downtown no matter how much congestion exists on the roads – thus reducing traffic counts somewhat.

    As to fixing roads: t2020 is only meant to address accute problems withint the near-Isthmus area where 70% of dane country residents live or work. The solution to road problems outside of this study area is the domain of the Madison Area MPO – which has several plans in the works for improving the roads.

    Removing bike lanes on East Washington will make absolutely no difference in reducing congestion (and may may it worse) because there isn’t even enough additional space added by doing to to add even one lane of traffic for automobiles. Additionally, many residents of the area would now be forced to drive to businesses on East wash that they currently bike to, adding to the congestion problem. Biking along east washington is actually safer that most people would expect – in part because to drivers are more alert because of their perception of a lack of safety (an ineresting, but true paradox)

    Decentralizing employment centers away from the Isthmus will only make traffic congestion worse as many people will be forced to drive longer distances that are not bikable and not easily served by bus lines. Worse, such a decentralization will suck the economic vitality out of downtown madison as businesses that benefit from the concentration of employment lose their daytime customers.

    Bypass highways are not cheap either – and will not provide a faster alternative to a potential rail line. Go ahead and plot a trip from east-wast in google maps using the beltline – it takes much longer that a rail trip would. Addtionally, bypass highways will promote development patterns that cause traffic congestion to increase more rapidly in the long run.

    While Rail seems expensive, keep in mind that the Madison area is on the top 5 list of most expensive areas to build roads in in terms of dollars required to save 1 hour of congestion delay. The reason foundation in 2005 estimated that it would cost $13.60 per delay-hour saved to build our way out of congestion with roads – and I am sure their numbers are highly optimistic and don’t count the costs of adding must-have amenities like ped/bike bridges that will be demanded by officials.


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