Uncivilized Unrest in Milwaukee’s Third Ward

Last week, I did lunch with the sophisticated and civilized people.

I knew the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ‘brown bag lunch’ at the Milwaukee Public Market last Thursday was going to be interesting when the first announcement was about how to get your automobile parking vouchers validated.

It was the first incongruous clash between the theory behind rail and the realities of life in the Midwestern United States, but it wouldn’t be the last.

For a little over an hour the crowd of thirty saw a presentation filled with hyperbole and poetry and devoid of any factual discussion over the complexities of establishing a significant rail network in the United States. Noticeably absent from the entire discussion: any mention of the prohibitive costs and subsidies required. Save, that is, for a few claims that the return on the investment makes the expansion of rail beyond debate.

No spreadsheets or projections to back up this assertion. No data comparing the subsidies per passenger-mile of rail to that of other forms of transportation. No acknowledgment that the State of Wisconsin is facing a $2.7 billion deficit.

Instead, the crowd was treated to a PowerPoint pitch depicting rail transit as the solution to our oil crisis and lauding the success of train travel in Europe and China. Finally, we were encouraged at the end to contact members of “your General Assembly” (I assume the speaker meant the state legislature) and the candidates for governor to express their support for the Milwaukee to Madison High Speed Rail Line.

“It is a much more civilized way to travel,” we learned after viewing some pictures of beautiful people on a French train.

Oh, if only we were as civilized as those progressive French. They zoom to the Mediterranean for their long weekends on Bullet trains. (Seriously, this was an example used when addressing the crowd on Water Street in Milwaukee).

Then again, with its multiple stops and the speed topping out at 79 miles per hour, the Milwaukee to Madison line is not high speed. More like half-fast, critics argue.

Oh, if only we could move as quickly as those expeditious Chinese. “China in cleaning our clock with rail,” we were warned. In only two years they’ve finished several lines and are in the process of building several more.

Darn those pesky human rights, property rights, independent local governments and that low-brow representative Democracy that actually has as its goal the exertion of the will of all the people, not just those of us who know best.

A few actually interesting news items were presented at the meeting, although I haven’t seen any coverage of these points.

1)      Richard Harnish, the Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association asserted that the state owns all the land necessary to construct the Milwaukee-Madison line, including the land needed to extend the line to a new train station on Madison’s Isthmus, just walking distance from the Capitol.

2)      Because of its deterioration, all of the existing track between Watertown and Madison will need to be removed, regraded and replaced in order for the trains to operate on that stretch.

3)      Advocates are gearing up for the next fight, bringing an Amtrak line (requiring state construction and operational subsidies) north from Milwaukee to Green Bay.


It is ironic that one of the main stated purposes of the meeting was to rev up the troops to lobby the candidates for governor. Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman sponsored the meeting and he’s fresh off his sophomoric belittling of the two Republican candidates who have expressed varying levels of opposition to the plan. That’s an interesting way to win over skeptics, Alderman.

Moreover, when asked about Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s pledge to scrap the rail line if elected, Harnish stated he didn’t know if halting the project was even possible.

Really? If it wasn’t a concern, why the meeting in the first place? If this line is a done deal, why the lobbying effort?

Perhaps because they know darn well there is a strong and growing effort to stop the train.

About that Madison Station

The Madison-Milwaukee rail project’s use of more than $800 million in federal stimulus dollars was approved on a 12-4 party line vote by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in February.

In addition, the Madison-to-Milwaukee line would initially require an estimated annual state subsidy of $7.5 million, beginning in 2013.

Did I mention the state has a $2.7 billion deficit?

The February stimulus fund approval included $9 million for a station in Madison, although questions were raised as to whether it would be located adjacent to the airport, or in Downtown Madison.

After little public debate over where to locate the station, Governor Doyle made the unilateral decision that it would be located within the Department of Administration building on Wilson Street.

Harnish asserts the land needed for the Madison to Milwaukee route has been bought and there are no eminent domain issues at play in Madison or anywhere else along the proposed route.

Really? We’ll see how that plays out.

Return on Investment, a look at real numbers

As Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute noted earlier this year:

“The bottom line is anything you can do with trains in Wisconsin, you can do faster, safer, cheaper, safer with busses,” O’Toole told the MacIver Institute this spring.

Moreover, unlike the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s Harnish who said that the ‘few Shekles’ it would cost the state were worth it, O’Toole backed up his claims with actual data, as you can see here.

O’Toole also debunked the myth that Rail makes sense because of environmental reasons. Again, unlike the folks at the MHSRA, O’Toole provided facts, not merely emotional appeals, to back up his assertions.

If the economic and environmental case could be made, I would be open to supporting investment a real bullet train between Chicago and Minneapolis, providing that went through Milwaukee but didn’t stop every 15 miles. However, proponents of rail are looking far beyond that niche and are pushing for a ‘half-fast’ solution that brings us all the operational inefficiencies of commuter rail, with the construction time and costs of a true high speed line.

No slide show displaying happy Europeans or Chinese rail construction timetables can refute the fact that the Milwaukee to Madison rail line is a project few Wisconsin taxpayers support and none can afford.

For the most part the audience at the Public Market was simply naïve. They see rail as a beautiful, environmental and prudent alternative form of transportation. However, they only see what they want to see. They weren’t aware of or concerned with the costs associated with the Milwaukee to Madison rail line. Surely, the organizers of the event weren’t about to touch that subject.

Which makes them purposefully deceptive. You can’t have a discussion about such a vast public works project without a serious deliberation over the costs. If Alderman Bauman and State Representative Peter Barca (who showed up 50 minutes late, but just in time for his five minutes of mic time) truly believe this rail project is a smart investment, they shouldn’t fear a real presentation. Rather than pictures of jovial Parisians, show us actual data. Rather than generalizations such as, ‘It is clearly worth it,” show us some real calculations.

To add insult to injury, before that meeting began, I had already parked at a pre-pay meter, so I couldn’t even take advantage of the free parking validation.

See, there I go thinking ahead of time about paying for something.

I know. How uncivilized of me.

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Institute Perspective