APTA | Passenger Transport
October 11, 2010

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The $54 question: Is rail worth it?

The following article not only makes an interesting case for investment in intercity rail in Wisconsin, it is also a good example of how to take an idea and describe it in such a way that anyone can understand its point about the cost of a particular infrastructure investment compared to other investments.

Over the years, I have worked with sponsors of a wide variety of public transportation projects across the country. I’m thinking that many people could find this creative technique useful in telling the story of the value of potential investment in public transportation—a technique that people could easily relate to.

So, read, and enjoy!

--William Millar
President, APTA

This story originally appeared Sept. 25, 2010, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reprinted by permission of the author.

With anti-rail activists whipped into a frenzy over threats that passenger rail services pose to Wisconsin and the state’s finances, it’s time to step back and take a closer look. Are rail opponents onto something, or are they on something?

Rail opponents rail against the cost of rail. They would like to have the money for rail either returned to Washington or spent on highways. Dream on. The $810 million is a part of a larger plan to restore intercity passenger rail across the United States. This is a federal project that won’t be derailed by Wisconsin politics. Restoring rail is expensive, but transportation projects are expensive. The Zoo Interchange will cost more than $2 billion to reconstruct. The Marquette Interchange was close to $1 billion. Where’s the outrage over that spending?

In any case, the money can’t be spent on highways, and even if it was sent back to Washington, it would be reallocated to another state to build their rail system—leaving Wisconsin in the dust. (We also would be sending millions of our tax dollars to another state to build rail instead of us getting the hundreds of millions from other states.)

The core of rail opponents’ argument seems to focus on the $54 question: Can we afford the annual operations costs of the added service? Those annual costs will amount to around $6 million a year. That amounts to one-fifth of one cent of our gas tax. So when a driver fills up with 20 gallons of gasoline at $2.70 per gallon, the bill will comes to $54. Just $.04 (yes, 4 cents) out of that $54 will go to pay for intercity rail.

Their argument also assumes that there are absolutely no benefits associated with the 4-cent investment that comes with a $54 purchase. It assumes that no one will benefit from jobs created to build the service. That no one will benefit from the development that occurs around rail stations. And that no one will benefit from being able to relax rather than fight traffic on the interstate.

Opponents also like to say that the train fares will be unaffordable. According to the state Department of Transportation, one-way fares will be between $20 and $30 for the ride from Madison to Milwaukee. Compare that to the cost of driving. Using federal reimbursement rates for mileage, driving the 78 miles between Madison and Milwaukee costs $39. That means taking rail saves between $9 and $19 each trip. It saves a lot more for someone in Madison taking the train to Mitchell International Airport to catch a flight due to the saved costs of parking. And it will boost traffic at Mitchell.

It seems like there’s a lot of rage over just 4 cents out of every $54.

The real issue seems to center on divisive politics: Since most people won’t ride the train, let’s not build it. Imagine if that argument really took hold on other issues. Most people in Wisconsin won’t use the Zoo Interchange, so let’s save $2 billion and not rebuild it. Most people in Wisconsin won’t drive on I-39 between Madison and Janesville, so let’s save a billion dollars by not building that. The argument can be extended to schools, libraries and other public services that we can’t afford to lose.

Wisconsin needs smart investments to grow and to be competitive with other states and other regions. Passenger rail is one of those investments. Passenger rail serves those who would rather relax - or work - on intercity trips. Rail stations attract development that adds value to host communities. Rail becomes an attractive option to driving as gas prices rise. Rail provides mobility to those who cannot drive.

Passenger rail has been a priority for many leaders in Wisconsin’s business community for decades. It has also been a priority for one of Wisconsin’s most irrepressible cheerleaders, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson—proving that rail does not have to be a partisan issue.

Sadly, opponents to rail are more interested in creating wedge issues than looking at the real potential of rail service. Otherwise, they would look at the 4-cent investment of a $54 purchase through a different lens.

It’s time to stop the bickering and move ahead with an eye on Wisconsin’s future.
Steve Hiniker is executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

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