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Sunday, August 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fog
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Is Madison making the right choices on transit?
Enough to drive you crazy
on (1) Comment

The city of Madison currently faces three separate but related decisions on transportation, each with long-ranging consequences.

These issues are: 1) the need for a downtown multi-modal transit facility; 2) the location of the high-speed rail terminal; and 3) the composition and goals of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA).

At its July 7 meeting, the Madison city council will vote on a proposal to demolish the Badger Bus depot on the corner of West Washington and South Bedford and replace it with mixed-use retail and luxury apartments. The proposal has cleared all its committee hurdles, including the Plan Commission, and now comes to the council for a final vote.

There may be little the city can do to stop this redevelopment, but city leaders seem oddly unconcerned about losing this last remaining intercity bus terminal.

Currently, both Badger Bus and Van Galder use the UW Memorial Union to load and unload passengers on buses to Milwaukee and Chicago. Greyhound has thus far not sought city permission to use Langdon Street.

Where will Greyhound pick up and drop off passengers without a terminal that sells tickets? Many Greyhound buses travel hundreds of miles and can be several hours behind schedule. Are passengers supposed to stand in the rain, the snow, the cold or the heat for hours with no idea when the bus might arrive?

The bus industry is moving toward the "Megabus model," named for a new intercity bus company that shuns depots, picks up passengers on street corners and only sells tickets online. This locks out many potential passengers - those who lack computers, credit cards and, incidentally, cars to get them out to stops. (Megabus' only Madison stop is the Dutch Mill park-and-ride lot on Hwy. 12-18.)

I traveled across the country on Greyhound last summer and was pleasantly surprised to see many multi-modal transit hubs serving local and intercity buses and, in some cases, Amtrak. Madison needs to assert its authority to regulate intercity bus routes and loading areas. We should plan for a downtown multi-modal bus and train terminal.

It now seems likely that part of the Midwest high-speed rail initiative, including the Chicago-to-Madison line, will be funded in the short term. Trains could start arriving in 2012.

Will Madison's permanent rail station be located at the airport, as some have urged? Does this make sense? Part of the allure of intercity rail is that, unlike airports, its stations are located downtown, not on the periphery.

"Ideally you would like a hub to be in your downtown," Mayor Dave Cieslewicz told The Capital Times, "but our airport has the advantage of being very close, a 10-minute ride to downtown."

Well, maybe it's a 10-minute ride when traffic is light, and if you have a car. Presumably, one reason many people will use the train is that they don't have cars. Thousands of university students don't. And Madison Metro service to and from the airport remains woefully inadequate.

The decision on where to locate the train station will depend in part on whether downtown and UW constituencies can mobilize support and convince authorities that a downtown terminal makes the most sense.

A compromise location could be the "Penn Station" site, the east-side rail yards by East Johnson and Fordem Avenue, so long as there is frequent express bus service to downtown and the university. (The tracks from Milwaukee actually come into Madison from the east, through the Atwood neighborhood, so stopping there would not involve delays, as claimed.)

Finally, more thought needs to go into a Regional Transit Authority authorized (pending voter approval) in the state's biennial budget.

As currently envisioned, the RTA would have nine seats, only two of which would be appointed by Madison's mayor, although Madison composes 70% of the population in the RTA's jurisdiction. (Two seats would go to the county; one to the governor; three to Fitchburg, Middleton and Sun Prairie; and one to the remaining 23 jurisdictions).

The board's make-up is likely to ensure a suburban bias. Already, the county has urged that part of the money go to fund roads, but Gov. Jim Doyle has vetoed a provision to allow that from the legislation authorizing RTAs. Can't our leaders envision a future that is not so car-oriented?

The RTA board should be expanded to give Madison more representation. And it should be stressed that the highwayman always gets his roads, so RTA dollars should not be diverted to road construction.

Madisonians, like most Americans, are in denial about the impact of peak oil and global warming. It will not be possible to continue our car-oriented lifestyles and sprawling development mentality and still meet urgent carbon-reduction goals.

Authorities should make transit decisions with an eye on a very different future, not the antiquated status quo of the past 50 years.

Tim Wong is a longtime transportation analyst who served on Madison's Transit and Parking Commission for five years.

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