Hearing from the People Re: Milwaukee to Madison Rail Project

I had the pleasure of meeting many of my neighbors the other night and enjoyed a lively discussion on the topic of the so-called high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison.

We came with questions. Many also came with something to say.

The meeting Tuesday night before at Brookfield City Hall got off to an inauspicious start when the overflow crowd was informed that “This is not a public hearing,” and that as is customary for all City Council meetings there would be 15 minutes set aside before the Council meeting began for the public to offer comments.

Fortunately, and to his credit, Mayor Steve Ponto waived the formalities and gave all those in the assembled crowd the opportunity to speak for a few minutes, providing they did not repeat comments or assertions made by previous speakers.

Well done, Mr. Mayor.

Because of Ponto’s rational decision, the crowd of more than 100 heard from a dozen or so speakers who expressed their opinion on the train in general, and the question of a proposed station in Brookfield in particular.

One woman hit the nail on the head early on in the evening,

“My main concern is for the city of Brookfield. I am really concerned about this cost and everything this is going to do to the taxpayers of this city,” she said.

While I have larger concerns with the project as a whole, as a Brookfield resident, homeowner and property tax payer, I echo her comments.

After about 40 minutes of public testimony (the crowd was approximately 80 percent opposed to the train) the Council began their meeting with a briefing by a few of the State Department of Transportation representatives who are working on the Milwaukee to Madison rail project.  They provided a summary of the August 3rd public hearing held in Brookfield and also provided answers to questions previously posed by the public and members of the Council.

Here is some of what was said, some of what was learned and some of the questions that remain unanswered in the wake of the meeting.

  • The DOT has been all over the place as far as what the required size of the Brookfield station would be. Whether the proposed station would cost 17.9 million or as much as $30 million would depend on the parking requirements (which have ranged from around 250 to as high as 550).

  • The state will only commit to paying $5 million toward construction of the station. This includes roadway and safety upgrades as well as land acquisition costs.
  • Brookfield would be stuck with annual maintenance costs for the station, which could range from a low of $30,000 annually to a high in excess of $100,000 a year.

  • Due to the fact the train will share tracks with freight trains, the train will not be high speed for some time.

  • The DOT claims traffic disruption on most cross streets would be no more significant that a typical stoplight, although it would take ‘a little longer’ at the intersections closer to the station.

  • DOT anticipates but would not guarantee the labor to construct the line would be from Wisconsin-based companies.

  • City officials do not anticipate the need to widen Brookfield Road to accommodate any increase in traffic.

  • DOT officials estimate 124,000 passengers per year will either get on or get off the train in Brookfield.

  • No figures were available for the increased cost of road maintenance or police protection that would be necessitated by the foot and car traffic due to the development of the Brookfield station.

  • The fare costs are unknown. (However, in its application for federal funds the state estimated the cost of a ticket from Milwaukee to Madison to be between $22 and $33 each way.)

  • The amount of annual state subsidies to operate the train is unknown.

  • The per-passenger mile cost of the route is unknown.

  • Any federal monies spent on the plan would have to be returned if the line and station is not operational for 20 years.

I’ve now attended a few meetings regarding the Madison to Milwaukee rail project and a pattern has developed.

What is known is the amount of federal taxes will be used (up to $810 million).

What is known is how much the state taxpayers will pay to construct the station in Brookfield ($5 million).

But there are so many unknowns. Including, it has to be noted, whether the new Governor will go through with the project. Barrett says he will, Walker has been adamant that he will not (to the point of even running television ads about that pledge) Neumann has agreed with Walker.

Given the uncertainties, why would local officials green light the use of even one dime of precious tax dollars on this boondoggle, at this time?

The full Council may take up measures relating to the construction of a rail station in September.  If Tuesday night’s feedback was any indication—and I’d bet my shirt it is, if they decide to follow the will of the people of Brookfield, a station will not be built in my hometown.

But why take my word for it? I’ve only been a resident of Brookfield for two years. That, and my attendance at last night’s meeting may leave me with an incomplete or inaccurate picture of the will of the people.

So let’s do this right.

How about a referendum this November?


Let’s give the people the chance to express their opinion.

While Mayor Ponto’s accommodation at Tuesday’s meeting was generous, the referendum would be the ultimate public hearing.

What say you, residents of Brookfield (and for that matter Oconomowoc, Watertown, Milwaukee and Madison)?

Why not hold referenda in each city this November to see if local residents want to pay for local costs associated with the Milwaukee-Madison rail project?

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective