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State business rallies around high-speed rail (UPDATE)

By Joe Lanane

Wisconsin companies are banding together in support of high-speed rail despite criticism the costs outweigh the benefits.

Bruce Speight, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, has collaborated with more than 300 companies to establish the Stand Up For Trains Wisconsin coalition. If the Milwaukee-to-Madison rail line is built, Speight said, businesses near the line anticipate stations teeming with train passengers, which will attract new companies seeking to capitalize on the increased pedestrian traffic.

He said that will lead to high-quality job candidates looking for ways to move to the communities along the rail line.

“High-speed rail will be for the 21st century what the interstate highway system was for the latter half of the 20th century,” Speight said. “Business leaders want and need high-speed rail to keep up with the modern economy.”

But Sam Staley, director of urban growth and land use policy for the Reason Foundation, a national public policy group, said business leaders should look no further than Amtrak’s struggles maintaining ridership and promoting business growth near existing train stations.

“Amtrak hasn’t triggered any meaningful development around its stations,” Staley said. “Development was occurring well before those stations were put into place.”

Riding a train still is far simpler than driving or flying, said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. He said many business groups around the Midwest want a more efficient way of reaching the region’s primary economic centers.

By riding a train rather than driving, Harnish said, company representatives can arrive faster at their destinations and be more productive en route.


Stewart Wangard, president and CEO of Wangard Advisors LLC, Milwaukee, said the companies represented by the coalition agree rail is the most cost- and time-effective way to connect businesses across Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest. Plus, he said, it’s safer.

“Quite often, we find ourselves traveling to Minneapolis or Chicago for business, and most of us use smart phones,” Wangard said. “You sure don’t want us using those while driving our cars.”

Staley, on the other hand, said the benefits are exaggerated.

“From my view, the cities in Wisconsin are so close together that the time savings will be minimal,” he said. “Rather than build a new set of train tracks, the state would be better off looking to an inner-city express bus service that would be far cheaper.”

That idea does not sit well with Harnish, who said that would hamstring the larger goal of connecting all of the Midwest’s metropolitan communities.

“The Midwest will either rise together or fall apart,” he said. “Each connection that doesn’t happen diminishes the value of this network.”

The bottom line, Staley said, is ridership will not be high enough to justify the money invested in high-speed rail.

“It’s a great way to subsidize high-end business travelers,” he said, “but that’s what it comes down to.”



  1. If Amtrak is in such dire straights, how is it that it carried a record 28.7 milliion passnegers and earned $1.74 Billion in revenues, also a record, in it;s last fiscal year, which ended September 30th. More to the point for Wisconsin, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha, of which the service to Madison is an extension, is on track to carry nearly 800,000 riders in 2010 – also a record – and all of this in an economy that is still recovering. Intercity buses are an important part of Wisconsin’s intermodal transportation system; and will be important feeders to enhanced rail service. But having ridden more miles than I can count on both intercity buses and intercity trains – there’s no comparison in the ride quality, comfort and ability to move around in the vehicle. Of course, if you’ve never ridden on either – you wouldn’t know that!

  2. Sam Staley seems unaware that this is not just Milwaukee-Madison train service. The statements attributed to him, at least, appear based solely on using that as the only measuring rod to determine its value. In fact, when this services begins, those using it will have their choice of 1,000 rail destinations throughout the U.S. and Canada to and from their boarding location. 1,000! (Some examples of cities in that list can be found in a leaflet available from the homepage at

    Staley also is quoted as citing “Amtrak’s struggles maintaining ridership.” Apparently he is unaware that the existing Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Chicago just rose yet again in year-to-year comparisons, to a record 783,000 passengers in the last 12 months, up 6.1% over the previous year.

    And Amtrak’s ridership nationally just set a new annual ridership record of 28.7 million passengers for the same period, up 5.7% over the year. Increases came in its long-distance, short-distance and high-speed Acela trains. Ticket revenue grew even faster, up 9% for the year. And that’s with almost no additional equipment that allows for longer or more frequent trains. The pattern already is well established in the U.S. — provide more trains and you get more riders.

    Yes, Amtrak is struggling with ridership — but it’s in trying to find seats for all those wanting to ride the existing trains.

    He also says “Amtrak hasn’t triggered any meaningful development around its stations.” That would come as a surprise to many communities across the US whose public officials and business leaders see this train service as having much economic development value to their communities, around the station or beyond, or both.

    For Watertown, Brookfield, and other cities in Wisconsin without an airport and intercity bus service but scheduled to get train service, this will give them their only intercity transportation network connection. And it’s directly on a major thoroughfare from Chicago to the Twin Cities when it’s completed. That can’t help but attract new business, more tourist and business travelers, and soon-to-be permanent residents.

    His arguments are just a variation on the old tale of someone wearing a blindfold touching an elephant once and drawing inaccurate conclusions from it.

  3. Sam Staley is either lying or uninformed about the effects of passenger rail service on real-estate development around station sites. In Normal, Ill., massive development is going up around the Amtrak station, and in Maine and New Hampshire every station between the Boston suburbs and downtown Portland has experienced large-scale development around the station due to the convenience of the Downeaster service that opened in 2002. In Brunswick, Me., development already is under way around the station, even though the Downeaster service is not scheduled to be extended to that city until 2013. In California, the Oakland suburb of Emeryville has gone from brownfield waste dump to a booming urban center because of the major intermodal station that Amtrak and the city established there in the early 90s. Emeryville’s empty factories are now Yuppie lofts, and two major corporations, Pixar Studios and Chiron Laboratories, have sited their world headquarters there. Some of the top real-estate development firms in the country are jockeying for property near rail stations because their numbers tell them that’s where the next boom will occur.

  4. The so-called “Reason Foundation” has traditionally attacked all passenger-rail public transportation. Here are some corporate interests that have contributed to the Reason Foundation, many of which thrive on the car culture. (from SourceWatch, 2000):
    * 3M
    * American Forest & Paper Association
    * American Petroleum Institute
    * Bank of America
    * Bayer Corporation
    * California Association of Realtors
    * California Water Service Company
    * Ken and Colleen Butler, Capital Partnerships
    * Chevron Corporation
    * Coca-Cola Co.
    * Consulting Engineers & Land Surveyors of California
    * Council of New York State, Inc.
    * Continental Airlines
    * Corrections Corporation of America
    * DaimlerChrysler Corp.
    * Dart Container Corporation
    * Delta Air Lines
    * Dow Chemical USA
    * Eastman Chemical Company
    * Eberle & Associates, Inc.
    * Edison Electric Institute
    * ENRON
    * ExxonMobil Corporation
    * Ford Motor Company
    * Freedom Communications
    * General Motors Corporation
    * LCOR Incorporated
    * Lehman Brothers, Inc.
    * Eli Lilly and Co.
    * Microsoft Corporation
    * National Air Transportation Association
    * National Beer Wholesalers Association
    * Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott
    * Pfizer, Inc
    * Philip Morris Companies
    * PricewaterhouseCoopers
    * Privatized Emergency Services Association
    * Procter & Gamble
    * Shell Oil Co.
    * Southern California Water
    * Union Carbide Corporation
    * Virco
    * Wackenhut Corrections Co.
    * Watson Land Company
    * Western States Petroleum Association

  5. For more on the economic and job benefits that come with increased passenger rail service in Wisconsin, check out this most recent edition of a four-page newsletter from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, “The High-Speed Rail ECON-nection.” It offers some good insights into just what is at stake in the November elections.

  6. The Badger Bus currently travels the Milwaukee to Madison route; train tickets will be twice the price of the bus fare; no time saved with train. If we must spend the money on rails lets upgrade the modestly succussul Miilwaukee- Chicago route to high speed. High speed rail eliminates all grade crossings, has a dedicated passenger track set, and can travel at 200mph. The proposed Milwaukee to Madison route is not designed as “upgradable” to high speed status. High speed rail eliminates all grade crossings, has a dedicated passenger track set, and can travel at 200mph. The proposed Milwaukee to Madison route is not designed as “upgradable” to high speed status.

  7. Milwaukee to Madison in not the end game…. you need to take into account Minny and Chicago as major destinations. Tying into those major markets can only be a good thing for our economy and Badger Bus is not going to get the job done… that is just stupid.

    You are also forgetting that the biggest gain is going to be seen in improved freight rail (i.e companies relocating here = jobs… and yes, I’ve met with these companies and rail is very attractive to them)… something most anti-rail are ignorant to or not smart enough to understand.

    When you add it all up, there is no halfway intelligent argument against taking the $800 million… it is getting spent on a train somewhere regardless.

  8. Again, note that the proposal is NOT for High Speed Rail; HSR and freight do not generally share the same rails;nor is it upgradable to HSR. If you want a HSR network you must replace/upgrade the Milwaukee-Chicago route at a cost of $50-$80 million/mile, thats $4.5 Billion(90 miles @ $50million/mile). So the $800 million is a bit short, at a minimum $3.7 billion dollars short. If the feds want to pay, I want to take the money, but lets prove the concept on our existing route. If the HSR from Milwaukee to Chicago is successful, then adding the Milwaukee-Madison-MN connection will happen very quickly.

  9. So you are arguing semantics…. 110 mph is pretty fast, regardless if it fits your definition of “high-speed rail” or not. And upgrading/adding to the rail lines for freight IS most definitely part of this project… the most important one.

    Bottom line, between the freight and passenger aspects, even the most conservative estimates of added tax revenues will more than justify $8-$12 million to maintain it. And ridership is only going to increase as gas gets more and more expensive and the population/development along that corridor continues to increase..

  10. This state has tried hard to be focused on environment and good stewardship as well as forward thinking energy and job needs. Must we constantly be regressing towards the control which self-interested corporations keep exerting on our state need for better passenger rail connections? It is my understanding that the killing of rail a few years ago was “railroaded” by the gasoline and car focused corporations and here we are again with this blatent and self-serving money spent to stop the trains. Now we have a gift from the nation/stimulas package, and because of a change in political leadership, we will potentially turn this down and give another state this funding? Mr. Walker and a group of like-minded “No it’s MY show” in control? Where are the brains FOR our state?

  11. Mr Mumma,

    You site the income generated by Amtrak but not the expenses. Probably because it operates at a deficit..

    Could any uptick in Hiawatha ridership be due to all construction along the I-94 corridor? One might expect ridership to go down once the roadway improvements are completed.


    The proposed train will hit 110 mph max. Average speed will be 59 mph. One then needs to factor time in to get to the limited number of depots that will be available, wait for a train and then find transportation on the other end. Total travel time could easily be double or triple that of driving.

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