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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Let us have commuter rail
Not everyone would turn up their noses at smart transit alternatives
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A commuter rail train in Kassel, Germany.
A commuter rail train in Kassel, Germany.

People like Rick Berg who think we can drill our way out of high gas prices, or build our way out of highway congestion, truly want to remain in the failed policies of the past ("Let Them Eat Commuter Rail," 6/27/08). When planning our transportation future, we must think locally while remembering the globe.

Times do change, and to advocate new mega-highways, and added expressways north and south of our lakes, is a recipe for disaster. Our carbon emissions mingle in the atmosphere with all others.

Now, dealing with the threat of global warming is a big task; but denying it, à la Mr. Bush, will not help us make more intelligent public policy choices. While auto use will continue, not every trip needs to include lugging around tons of metal and spitting out carbon dioxide. We should be cheered that some citizens want other choices.

It's true, as Berg says, that downtown Madison has changed and is no longer the locus of all major department stores. However, our downtown ain't dead by a long shot. The area remains a major retail, employment and activity center and the destination of many trips. (Perhaps Monona Terrace and Overture missed an earlier memo on the death of downtown.)

And then there's our world-class university, along with some other pretty good institutions of higher learning. While protecting the campus' natural and scenic areas, the UW-Madison has been busy building a new urban campus that happens to be right next to a rail corridor.

Every six years, the university invests another $1 billion building itself up. There's a new Grainger Hall addition, visitor center and administrative offices, a new biochemistry addition, and remodeled engineering buildings. Under construction is the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, to be followed by a new Union South.

Never has commuter rail, which Berg regards so dismissively, made so much sense.

According to Berg, downtown Madison is the exclusive domain of rich lawyers, lobbyists and state employees (do they really belong on this list?) who could never be persuaded to give up their Lexuses to ride the choo-choo train.

But what of the students, faculty and visitors who flock to the campus year-round? What of the tens of thousands of people who come here to work and shop and attend events? And who would not prefer taking a train to cheer the Badgers at Camp Randall and the Kohl Center over traffic jams and parking hassles?

The plan is to start commuter rail by running a 15-mile line from Middleton to Sun Prairie, on existing tracks in our preserved rail corridor. An east branch would come from Sun Prairie to Hill Farms, and a west branch from Middleton to Union Corners, with overlapping 10-minute service in the core.

Four major park-and-ride lots would let commuters from further out jump onto the train. Express bus routes from outlying communities would radiate like spokes into the county. A bikes-on-board capability would extend use to broader areas.

The market region for commuter rail is two-thirds of the Dane County population and 80% of Dane County employment. Annual ridership would be over three million with a potential for expansion. Capital cost is $255 million, with the federal government expected to pay more than half. A federal application to proceed with preliminary engineering has just been made.

People like Berg who think mass transit can't work in Madison ignore a fundamental fact: It already does.

Madison Metro annually provides more than 12 million fixed-route rides, of which about half are made by "choice" riders who could take an auto. Their decision not to do so reduces congestion for those who do.

But a bus system is not enough to meet the city's future needs. We need a mix of alternatives. A Regional Transportation Authority with a dedicated funding source like a half-percent sales tax could ensure truly regional bus and rail service.

That's the idea backed by County Executive Kathleen Falk, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and County Board Chair Scott McDonell, among others. We should also remember former Railroad Commissioner Rodney Kruenen, a tireless rail advocate, and former County Board Chair Mike Blaska, who put rail on the county agenda.

If Rick Berg really cared about the ordinary citizens, he'd realize that more of the same is not an option. We need the courage and wisdom to embrace alternatives to a highway-building and gas-guzzling future.

Dick Wagner, a former County Board chair and retired state employee, is a member of Transport 2020.

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