Business leaders and politicians engaged in a heated debate Thursday on the economic development potential of high-speed rail.
While supporters of the more than $800 million plan to build high-speed rail service in Wisconsin touted the benefits of regional accessibility, opponents such as state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, questioned the likelihood of increased development near rail hubs.
“There will be a couple of businesses that benefit from this,” Kanavas said. “But ultimately, if this is about development around the stations, we’ve got a problem.”
Kanavas was part of a three-member panel that discussed the practicality and economic development potential of the rail proposal.
Panelist Teresa Esser, a principal at Capital Midwest Fund LP, Milwaukee, said she couldn’t “care less about a couple of restaurants around the station.”
“This is about the region,” she said. “It’s about the number of hours it takes for people to get from place to place. There’s a lot of money in Chicago. It’s about making it easier and faster to get that money here.”
The proposed high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison is part of a larger system intended to link Minneapolis to Chicago.
“This is a regional thing, not a Milwaukee-to-Madison thing,” said Trevor D’Souza, managing director at Mason Wells Inc., Milwaukee, who attended Thursday’s meeting. “If we want to be a great region, we need to have decent transportation. The end game is the Twin Cities.”
Esser said the potential for economic development will be found in the increased opportunities people have with the ease of a well-connected high-speed rail system.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to get to Chicago,” she said. “This will open a lot more markets.”
But economist Larry Kaufmann is unconvinced. Kaufmann, who was not at Thursday’s meeting but weighed in on the plan’s economic development potential beforehand, said a fair amount of research shows that development does not result from rail.
“Development is just redistributed,” he said, “not created.”
Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz agreed, calling any development resulting from regional transit “contrived.”
“Mass transit should take people where they want to go,” she said, “not where we tell them to go.”
Bruskewitz said the large amount of money planned for the system is not worth the potential for development.
“Building a train line is not going to build business,” she said. “This is pie-eyed thinking.”
But panel member Paul Eberle, chief executive of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek SC, Milwaukee, said opponents of the high-speed rail project need to look at the big picture.
“Development around the stations is insignificant,” he said. “But connecting people regionally is important.”[polldaddy poll=”2950008″]