Saturday, September 20, 2008

The railroad not taken

Jim Rowen summarizes the case against rail transit in last Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In the late 1990s, a transit package was proposed that included,
- Highways: Marquette Interchange and east-west corridor reconstruction with special carpool and bus lanes from downtown Milwaukee to Highway J in Waukesha County: $1.32 billion.

- Light rail: The starter line in Milwaukee County: $330 million.

- Buses: Greatly expanded bus service connecting Waukesha and Milwaukee counties: $90 million.

Just a "starter line" would have cost a fourth as much as the freeway reconstruction, and about three and one-half times as much as the bus service improvements. The accompanying graphic on "What could have been" shows what is essentially a re-creation of the Wauwatosa branch of the Number 10 streetcar line.

When streetcars were replaced with buses on that line in 1958, the Wauwatosa branch was eliminated. Buses instead continued straight west on Wisconsin Avenue and Blue Mound Road. Interstate 94 now parallels that route across town, as well as the route of the rail rapid transit line abandoned in 1951. (See Why the light rail hysteria?.) As I recall, building a light rail line in that corridor was controversial because of cost and the need to acquire right of way. As a result, the proposal was a route that attempted to meander around controversy at an additional cost in running time, and still at a cost of a third of a billion dollars.

The Dueling express bus plans of Milwaukee County Executive Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett instead propose bus rapid transit on a straight east-west cross-town alignment. Assuming bus rapid transit draws fewer riders than rail, it would seem possible to set a bus ridership level on the line which, if achieved, would make building a rail line attractive.

That would still leave the right of way problem. Perhaps the City should have suggested giving up a lane each way for rail transit in the freeway median.

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