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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Commuter rail in Dane County will likely be a major issue in 2011
The next great train debate
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Anyone tired of talking about trains yet? I hope not because, to quote Karen Carpenter, we've only just begun...to discuss this issue in Dane County.

In fact, the passenger train issue will likely be more important in the next election, for Dane County executive, than it was in the race for governor. It's also about to get wrapped up in a bigger debate about transportation policy.

I know, nothing says excitement like "transportation planning," but since we're destined to hear more about trains and transportation in the next few months, it's a good time to propose some common-sense criteria that voters, and politicians, can use to evaluate these issues.

In recent months, the train project that has captured by far the most attention is the proposed high-speed rail line from Milwaukee to Madison. Scott Walker was elected governor while promising to stop this project in its tracks; and to some people's surprise, he's done just that. (And yes, the project is dead, regardless of how many rallies One Wisconsin Now holds.)

The proposed commuter rail line is different. It would run from Middleton through the heart of Madison to the town of Burke. Unlike the high-speed train, this commuter rail line would be almost completely funded by Dane County (rather than federal or state) taxpayers.

You may be more aware of this "low speed" train if you live outside Madison, because in most of Dane County (but not the city of Madison) citizens were allowed to vote Nov. 2 on whether sales taxes should be increased to fund commuter rail.

The results were overwhelming. In 44 of the 45 municipalities where votes were allowed (including important population centers like the cities of Middleton, Sun Prairie, Verona and Stoughton), the people said no to commuter rail. Overall, 71% of voters rejected these referenda and only 29% were in favor.

These results are certain to factor into the April 2011 election for Dane County executive. One reason is that Scott McDonell, the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring, is a longtime, fervent rail supporter. Other, more conservative politicians will announce their candidacy soon, and all of them will strongly oppose the commuter train.

The Dane County Regional Transportation Authority will soon also weigh in on this topic, when its overall transportation plan is released early next year. Eight of the nine RTA members have expressed support for commuter rail in the past.

Passenger rail will therefore be a live and relevant issue in the Dane County executive race. It's an issue on which the candidates will be clearly divided, which should invite vigorous debate. Heck, trains and transportation could well be the dominant issue in the race.

Allow me, at the start of this process, to make a modest proposal: Public policy for transportation should deliver what the public wants.

You might think this is so obvious it hardly needs to be said. You would be wrong.

The principles for the Regional Transit Authority (PDF) list many objectives, but none address whether the public is actually demanding these particular initiatives. Even the "Framework Criteria" for evaluating plan choices fails to mention satisfying consumer demands.

While we shouldn't prejudge everything the public may want, we can make a few reasonable assumptions. Chief among them: Public spending should promote safe, affordable transportation that allows people to get where they want to go when they want to go there.

Each of these transportation attributes - safety, affordability and mobility - is measurable. Safety can be measured in accidents and traffic deaths; affordability by the dollars spent; mobility by the level of congestion. If we're stuck in traffic, waiting for the train to pass, we're not getting where we want as quickly as we would like.

So, all the complexities notwithstanding, a first pass at comparing alternative transportation plans can be boiled down to a single metric: the ratio of congestion relieved for dollars spent. For any two transportation proposals that are equally safe, the option that relieves the most traffic congestion for a given amount of spending will be the one that is preferred by the public.

Should this be the end of the discussion? No. There are other issues to be considered, including energy use and the impact of alternative transportation designs on economic development (a very interesting but more complicated subject).

However, the intersection of Cost and Congestion should be the place where transportation debates begin. If people advocate a transportation option that doesn't meet this basic test, the burden is on them to show that their plan is nevertheless best.

This is the standard to which the public should hold rail projects - and political candidates - accountable. If they do so, then transport investments are more likely to deliver what the public wants, and any project - including a train - that increases congestion will likely be dead on arrival.

Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.

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