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.”