Nearing the end of a two-state, seven-city high-speed rail tour, Donna Brown and Charles Quandel are answering many questions, but also leaving hundreds of audience members disappointed.
Brown, a passenger rail planning manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and Quandel, president and CEO of Chicago-based Quandel Consultants LLC, have spent the past two weeks presenting findings from an environmental impact study for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. The final meeting will be in Milwaukee, but the date has not been set.
It isn‘t necessarily the duo’s fault that people have left the meetings unsatisfied. When the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation scheduled the open houses a few months ago, the meetings were supposed to answer technical questions regarding a broad rail plan with several possible routes stretching from Minnesota’s Twin Cities to Milwaukee.
That focus has not changed, but the political climate surrounding rail in Wisconsin has. With Gov.-elect Scott Walker promising to halt the state’s cooperation in a Midwest plan, the public meetings have morphed into forums in which sign-wielding residents use the public-comment portions to vent frustration.
“I don’t consider the tone” of the audience, Brown said, deflecting questions about how she and Quandel are holding up under the unanticipated intensity of the information sessions.
More than 600 people packed a Madison hotel conference room Tuesday, forcing Brown and Quandel into the role of referees as people yelled pro- and anti-train arguments at one another. One attendee, rather than ask a question, approached the podium and held in front of Quandel a sign that read: “High speed rail will never ever come close to sustaining itself.”
Shouts and boos followed.
The meetings “get challenging, but we’re here to give both the pros and cons,” Brown said. “That’s what’s necessary.”
Although Brown has eluded politics — during the meetings and in an interview — the WisDOT manager offered hope for train advocates. It remains to be determined whether Walker will turn away or reallocate more than $800 million in federal money intended for a Madison-to-Milwaukee route, but Brown insisted Wisconsin’s efforts will not go to waste.
“Keep in mind, for the Madison-to-Milwaukee route, we completed the study back in 2004, and it’s now 2010 when we started looking at implementation of the project,” she said. “If this is put on the shelf, we’ll be able to revisit that.”
Environmental studies, Quandel added, come with a five-year shelf life, but even that can be stretched.
Still, the prospect of resuming work several years from now provides little comfort for Lindsey Lee, who owns several coffee shops in Madison. High-speed rail, Lee said, “is coming to Madison. It’s just a question of whether it will benefit this generation or future generations.”
Minnesota continues to study routes that both include and exclude Madison. But the omission of Madison would leave any Midwest rail plan deeply flawed, said Barry Gore, a planner and urban designer who unsuccessfully lobbied Madison to build its rail station on the city’s east side.
“I think what’s getting lost on some people, even though we’re talking Twin Cities to Chicago, because this is the corridor we live in, is the people in the Twin Cities have a much bigger connection to Madison than they do to Milwaukee or Chicago,” Gore said, “mainly because of the reciprocity between the universities.”
The airline route between Minneapolis and Madison is too expensive, Gore said, “but it’s perfect for the train.”
During the open houses, though, Brown and Quandel provide no response to such sentiments and questions. Several times in Madison, Brown responded politely to questioners: “This is a meeting for the Twin Cities-to-Milwaukee route. I do not have information specific to the Madison-to-Milwaukee route to share with you.”
When a pro-rail attendee asked Quandel to comment on the tax benefits high-speed rail would create, as opposed to other modes of transportation, Quandel responded: “No, I’m not an economist. I’m an engineer.”
Milwaukee residents will soon get their turn in front of Brown and Quandel. Any questions relating to the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative study likely will draw scientific answers. But when the questions are too charged, Brown and Quandel simply will smile and decline to answer.
“We know it will be political,” Brown said, “so that’s all you can do.”