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Madison conservatives hope to halt commuter rail
Stop that train!
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For some people, commuter rail is a nifty idea that makes sense for Dane County, one that will combat pollution and traffic congestion while it promotes economic development and gets people where they need to go. For Vicki McKenna, it's about those damn liberals, trying to micromanage everyone else's lives.

"[County Executive] Kathleen Falk and the pro-rail people do not like the way we live," McKenna told her WIBA radio audience earlier this year. "They want to force everybody into high-density areas, to live the way they would prefer we live. So single-family homes not so much; condos, high-density, multi-use, walkable communities, communities on train routes, that's how they'd prefer us to live, which is what this is about."

Not to be outdone, McKenna's guest that afternoon, Dane County Republican Party spokesman Bill Richardson, added this frightening analogy: "This has been done before. The Soviet Union and in East Berlin and all those places. They built these...very ugly high-rise apartments, and they jammed people into these. And you know what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed? People bailed out of those things as fast as they could get out."

Um, commuter rail is going to turn Madison into the decaying Soviet bloc, a failed experiment in social engineering? Really?

For the past several years, conservatives have made derailing commuter rail their cause célèbre. It was one of Nancy Mistele's main issues in her race against Falk for county executive last spring. County Board conservatives have tried several times to force a referendum on the issue. And McKenna has used her daily radio show, Up Front with Vicki McKenna (1310 AM, 3-6 p.m., Mon.-Fri.), to regularly and loudly beat the drum against the idea.

"The far right hates transit," says County Board chairman Scott McDonell. "They hate all transit. I think they think they're being libertarian. Cars you can go where you want, as if roads don't cost anything. They killed the streetcars. Now they've moved on. If they're successful, they'll go after buses."

Proponents of commuter rail say it is essential for the county's long-term health. As more people make the area their home, they need more modern and efficient ways to get around. Commuter rail - literally rail that people would use to commute to various locations around the county - has long been envisioned as an ideal solution.

There are no firm plans, but the Transport 2020 committee recommended a commuter train running from Reiner Road on the west side of Sun Prairie to downtown Middleton (see map). The train would use existing rail lines, include about 12 stops, link with bus routes and cost $255 million. It's projected to cost $10.4 million a year to operate the train. Later extensions could link the airport and Fitchburg to the system.

Commuter rail has been discussed locally for years and was given a shot of support by the Transit 2020 planning process, now in its second phase. Dane County completed a Commuter Rail Feasibility Study in 1998, which "concluded that investment in high-capacity transit improvements is feasible, and worthy of continued consideration."

Last week, the County Board voted 20-16 in favor of creating a Dane County Regional Transit Authority. This nine-member body will be charged with developing a transit plan for the area that includes commuter rail. Once a plan is developed, voters will be asked to approve any associated sales tax, its proponents say. Under newly created state law, the county could establish up to a half-cent sales tax to fund the transit system. The tax would apply only to the part of the county included in the RTA area.

The soonest this referendum is likely to take place is November 2010, which will give conservatives plenty of time to hone their arguments against it. This will also give proponents some additional time to prepare.

"There are people who can advance politically because they're against these things," says lobbyist Gary Goyke, who represents the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association. "We'll fight them every step of the way."

Liking the nuttiness

McKenna hates the color beige. For her, it represents what's gone horribly wrong with Madison.

McKenna, 41, went to Beloit College from 1986 to 1990 and would often come to Madison with her friends to hang out. She remembers one of those road trips, driving around with friends and seeing a house painted purple. Purple was cool and crazy, she says, still giggling about it today. A purple house was what made Madison great.

Today, McKenna sees way more beige than purple, and it grosses her out. She bought her own house in part because it was painted yellow, and she swears there will never be "a speck of beige" in it.

"Madison used to be a free-spirited, loud, iconoclastic city," McKenna says in an interview. "It didn't used to be a bunch of people bitching about noise and student drinking. The people who like to have fun and be boisterous got boring. And I still like the nuttiness."

Madison, she says, has turned into Pleasantville, the mythical film town that exemplifies drab, uniform sameness. She feels sorry for its denizens: "I wonder if they ever thought they'd get to be so bland."

McKenna also laments the loss of a time when people of any political stripe - libertarian, communist, liberal, hippie and conservative - "could somehow all get along," arguing politics but still enjoying each others' company over a beer. Whether such a time ever existed in Madison is almost beside the point.

In this, McKenna is like many modern conservatives, who love the style and attitude of the '60s baby boomers, but not their politics. Outrageousness is okay, as long as it doesn't require change or intrude on your sensibilities.

McKenna moved to Madison in 1994, working first as a news director for WTDY and later as morning DJ for Z104, a classic rock station, and then WMAD, which was at the time a new rock alternative station (now it's a country station). She started her talk show on WIBA in 2003.

On WIBA, McKenna is billed as a "voice of reason in a city of chaos." She's become a fixture, ridiculing the excesses of liberals and progressives and railing against tax hikes and big government. She can be shrill and nasty, but also funny.

Clearly, for McKenna, there are good and bad forms of "chaos." Purple houses, good. Commuter rail, are you out of your mind?

"They're lyyyyy-ing to you!" McKenna has said on her show, referring to the arguments of rail proponents. "It is a lie. It is as simple as that. They are politicians who are lying to the people to get what the politicians want."

Litany of criticisms

How effective is McKenna? Her targets insist they don't pay her any mind.

"I know their arguments generically, but I don't listen to talk radio," says Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. "For one thing, I work during the day."

McDonell claims he doesn't listen to McKenna either, calling her show "the drumbeat of misinformation." Still, he finds her politically useful. "Vicki McKenna on most issues is helpful to me because she radicalizes the issue," he says, pushing conservative politicians to take ever more extreme positions, which don't do well in Democratic Dane County. Indeed, her zealous and polarizing opposition makes her "a political ally of mine."

But it would be a mistake to dismiss McKenna as inconsequential. She has the power, if not to make things happen, then at least to help keep things from happening.

Two years ago, Cieslewicz was pushing for streetcars in downtown Madison. The idea was skewered by McKenna and others. When south-side Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele held a public hearing on crime, residents turned out in droves, demanding more police instead of trolleys. The mayor backed down.

"I just wasn't able to build a base of support to make that work," says Cieslewicz, who thinks commuter rail will fair better. "Now there's a very good base of support. It's a completely different ballgame."

Still, conservatives like McKenna have come up with a litany of criticisms of commuter rail, some of which are not easily dismissed.

Commuter rail, they say, is far too expensive and will likely cost much more than estimated, as has happened elsewhere. Dane County isn't big or dense enough to support it. Only a small number of residents will take the trains. There are better, cheaper ways of moving people around. Diesel locomotives will cause more pollution, not less.

Proponents of regional transit authorities insist they are not just about trains but all transit modes, including buses, cars and bikes. But the ability of RTAs to impose a sales tax would make commuter rail possible.

Conservatives think that's the wrong way to go. County Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz argues that better, more extensive bus lines and car-sharing services, perhaps accessible via computer, would make more sense.

"If we were looking at people's needs for transportation, we'd come up with a very different system than trains," she says. "It's unfortunate that many of my colleagues and the county executive have been mesmerized by the idea of a train because we want to be like a big city."

Dane County GOP spokesman Richardson, who's been on McKenna's show several times talking about rail, has started a website,, where he and others attack the idea.

"People love trains. I love trains," Richardson says. "There's a romantic attachment to trains. But this is commuter rail in a small city."

He says rail will make congestion worse, not better, because there will be 8,000 train crossings a day at roads around the city, clogging traffic at rush hour.

McDonell dismisses this concern, saying trains will be through most intersections in less than 30 seconds. If stopped traffic is such a worry, he says, "by that argument we shouldn't have stop signs." He adds that improving the existing rail lines will allow freight trains - which stop traffic for longer periods - to move through the city more quickly, thereby easing congestion.

Similarly, McDonell portrays the conservative call for improved bus service as disingenuous. "I'm sure they'll be all in favor of a sales tax to support more buses," he says sarcastically. "It wasn't that long ago they said 'no one rides buses and they're driving around the Square empty.'"

McDonell says that while flexibility is an advantage of buses, "developers don't build around bus lines. It's a fact that development occurs around rail stations and not around buses."

It's an admission that plays into one of the conservatives' main arguments - that the underlying goal of commuter rail is not transit at all.

Engines of development

When McKenna first heard the proposal for commuter rail, she thought it was "a ridiculous idea." Since then, she's come to believe the idea is a Trojan horse, meant to usher in changes in lifestyle and land use.

McKenna disdains the liberal New Urbanist vision of "walkable communities," which for her is nothing more than the "intelligentsia" telling people how to live.

"If they want to have walkable communities with high-rises and the corner grocery store or pharmacy, that's fine: Build those. Sell those," she says, preferring that the market, not government, dictate lifestyle choices. "But don't make me subsidize it."

McDonell agrees rail affects land use - but so does building a transportation system that's dependent on cars. Rail lobbyist Goyke agrees: "Two billion for an interstate is okay, but money on transit is not?"

Falk says her main goal for commuter rail is transit, noting that 100,000 people drive in and out of Madison each day. But she also touts its potential to spur development.

"Eighty percent of all job opportunities lie along the rail corridor now," she says. "Seventy percent of job growth is predicted to be on this same corridor."

McKenna says the real engines of economic development are automobiles, which improve job and housing options. "You want people to be mobile. You want flexible mobility," she says. "In my perfect world, everyone would own a car. Car ownership gives you access to creating wealth. Trains don't do that. So we're not helping poor folks."

Beyond that, McKenna criticizes the process through which commuter rail has been advanced. She thinks there have not been enough opportunities for public input. And she's angry that the RTA has been created even though no referendum was held, warning that this may prove to be a broken promise.

"Why this wink and a nudge of saying we'll have a referendum later?" she asks. "We want to know whether the people want to give taxing authority to the RTA. I don't buy it for a second [they'll have a referendum later]."

McKenna takes some credit (along with her WIBA colleague Mitch Henck) for slowing down the push for rail, getting people to attend public meetings and voice concerns. "We're the reason we had [Metropolitan Planning Organization] meetings become ad hoc public hearings," she says. "And I know they don't like it. We have delayed the project."

And though she's skeptical that an RTA spending referendum will occur, she plans to keep pushing for it. "Have a vote," she urges. "If I lose, they can go about the business of wrecking things."

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