Rail-Caused Traffic Congestion is Madison’s Inconvenient Truth

While President Obama’s Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was telling Wisconsinites that the federal government was going to make them pay for a new proposed high-speed train line whether they want it or not, Wisconsin residents were finding a new reason to object. Not only is the operation of the train too expensive, the trains may be counter-productive to reducing traffic congestion. 

Congressional candidate Peter Theron recently reminded voters that trains do not just magically appear at a train station. Trains have to ride railroad tracks to get there, often causing the traffic congestion the trains are supposed to alleviate.  
Theron, a Republican running in Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District, proposed simulating the combined effect of Madison’s proposed commuter rail line and the rail line from Madison to Milwaukee. Theron asked the City of Madison for permission to shut down the intersections where John Nolen Drive, South Blair Street, East Wilson Street and Williamson Street meet the rail line twenty-six times in a two-hour period during the afternoon rush hour.
Theron said he used the city’s information to figure out how many times traffic would need to be stopped.
“What I looked at was the application that the city made,” Theron said. “The city assumed a ten minute wait time at peak times for the train.” 
Theron said that would mean six eastbound trains plus six westbound trains every hour through the intersection, plus the additional rail traffic of the Milwaukee to Madison train.
When asked what kind of reaction Theron was getting for his experiment, he said it has been mostly positive. One person even said to him, “Wow, why doesn’t the city do it?”
Perhaps the city should. A 2008 application for preliminary engineering for the Transport 2020 plan that was sent to the Federal Transit Administration indicates that if plan is not followed (including a commuter rail line), travelers at the intersection in question can expect an additional one to six minute delay by the year 2030. The application does not indicate the amount of delay that would be caused by the proposed commuter rail train and the proposed high-speed rail line.
Theron applied using the process to close streets for block parties, rallies, parades and other events.  “We do it all the time,” he said. Theron chose the intersection because of the amount of traffic and because it “has a fairly sophisticated set of lights,” adding that the lights have left turn signals.
The Street Use Commission rejected the application, largely for reasons of safety. Theron said Commission members were mainly concerned with the safety of stopping and starting traffic in the intersection. Chairwoman Kelli Lamberty also expressed a concern over the appropriateness of the use of the permit for a traffic experiment.
Theron said he will continue to raise awareness on the issue. He is planning on an informational picket at the intersection on the day he planned to stop traffic, August 27th.
It was a rough week for supporters of the proposed high-speed rail line. Residents in Brookfield and Oconomowoc, locations of stations along the proposed route, expressed their opposition to the rail line at meetings sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. 
Brookfield’s proposed train station is well away from the main business district on highway 18 and the Brookfield Square shopping mall. The Brookfield station is expected to cost $17.9 million, of which $5 million will come from the federal government.
In Oconomowoc, residents there will be asked to build a parking lot for the new station, a cost that has yet to be determined. Oconomowoc residents will also be expected to pay for the ongoing maintenance costs of the station.  
As Brookfield and Oconomowoc residents learned, there will be costs for stations that will be where they’re not wanted. Theron reminded us that there are other costs for being caught on the wrong side of the tracks, even in Madison. 

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute