Don’t let skeptics derail mass transit options

    If your only source of information was local conservative talk radio, you would be convinced that passenger trains are evil, maniacal tools of the liberal elite.

    For whatever reason, the hosts of those shows jerk their knees, put their hands over their ears and scream when they hear the words "commuter rail," "light rail" or "trolley." On the local radio dial, such words rank right up there with other hot-button phrases such as "pro-choice," "affirmative action" and "global warming."
    Judging from the radio hosts, you might think that conservatives and business people just naturally and universally oppose mass transit.

    But you would be wrong.

    Truth be told, conservative politicians and business executives across the country are jumping on board with mass transit systems in places such Texas, Missouri and Utah. Heck, even the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, loves trains.

    Paul Weyrich, chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, has been making the conservative case for mass transit systems for the past 10 years.

    "Just about every light-rail system is a success. Most far exceeded their planned ridership," wrote Weyrich, who was the co-author of a 1999 study titled, "Does Transit Work? A Conservative Reappraisal."

    The forward in the study was written by none other than former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who said, " Like many officials at the state level, I encourage those in Washington and in various think tanks around the country to go into the field and witness for themselves just how viable rail transit can be and how important it is to working people. The American people need a dependable and affordable means to get to work and back each day. Think about it – the average price of a new car is now over $20,000. Good public transit can help working families keep a portion of that money in the bank instead of spending it at the gas pump. To them, and us, that’s important. So is this study. Read it, and I think you’ll see why even conservative state governors want more and better public transit, not less."

    I mean, even Tommy likes trains!

    Although the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail system was a last-minute casualty of the recent state budget negotiations, business leaders have been lining up to support the project, and it will come back again, like a bad penny, for the local radio talkers.

    Consider the following recent endorsements of the KRM in the Milwaukee Biz Blog:

    • "From a hard-nosed business perspective there are many reasons to support KRM. Job creation, economic development, increased tourism dollars and some relief on our increasingly congested freeways … Change is hard for many but the pocketbook oftentimes speaks loudly regarding personal transportation decisions. As for me, if it passes all the political hurdles, I’ll be one of the first to ride it on a regular basis."
      – Gary Billington, vice president of client relations at Plunkett Raysich Architects LLP in Milwaukee.
    • "We continue to hear a lot of discussion about a commuter rail connection between Milwaukee and Chicago. From my perspective, it can’t happen fast enough. We need not simply to provide transportation, we need to encourage travel. Whether it’s Summerfest or the Milwaukee Rep, our city has a lot to offer to the Chicago shopper and vacationer. Commuter rail can make that happen. It means dollars. It means growth."
      – Bob Welke, chief executive officer of Blue Horse Inc. in Milwaukee.
    •  "The KRM commuter rail will create better access to hotels and for convention visitors, effortless and affordable travel between cities and link tourist attractions throughout the lakefront corridor. Increased access is attractive not only for the hospitality industry, but also for the economic vitality of our area in general, as we begin to see more people choosing to live, work and play in the region. The commuter railway will deliver a willing labor force to employers along the southern coastline of Wisconsin and northern Illinois as well as establish greater linkage to General Mitchell International Airport … As plans for the KRM commuter rail move forward, southeastern Wisconsin needs to embrace this project and recognize it as a golden opportunity for the future of our state.
      – Robert Mariano, chairman and chief executive officer of Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc. in Milwaukee.
    • "I believe Racine and southeastern Wisconsin can be a place where people would love to live. We have the lake. We have affordable living. We have the culture and sports of Chicago and Milwaukee. But Racine is not connected to Chicago or Milwaukee the way Oakland is to San Francisco or Wayne Township is to New York. My company believes southeastern Wisconsin needs a commuter rail that goes not just from Chicago to Kenosha but on to Racine and Milwaukee."
      – Jane Hutterly, executive vice president of worldwide corporate and environmental affairs at S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. in Racine.


    Then there’s Michael Cudahy. The venerable, 83-year-old businessman and philanthropist is a long-time advocate of mass transit who has been studying rail systems throughout Europe and in other markets across the United States. Cudahy is calling for a new streetcar system that would shuttle people around to Milwaukee’s most prominent destinations.

    Now, I know local conservative politicians hate it when they have to defend themselves to the bully pulpits on the radio dial. But it’s time they grow some spines.

    We’ve got $91.5 million in federal seed money waiting for us to get our mass transit act together.

    To be clear, this is not a call for light rail, commuter rail, trolleys or streetcars. It is a call for an honest, thorough, objective discussion and analysis of all of our regional transportation options – once and for all – wherever that may lead.

    Let us not have that discussion polluted or muted by preconceived, loud agendas.

    Instead, let’s figure out what’s best for the Milwaukee region – whatever that may be – and let’s do it. It’s getting done in other markets, and Milwaukee is falling behind.


    Steve Jagler is executive editor of Small Business Times.

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