High-speed rail: If you build it, they won’t come

    Even though my accounting office is located in Milwaukee, I have had the good fortune to attract a number of clients in the Madison area. So, you would think I’d be exactly the type of person who would use and benefit from the proposed high-speed train line from Milwaukee to Madison.

    Despite the fact that I travel to the Madison area on a weekly basis, I will never use the train, and it’s important to understand why people will not use this train and why this expenditure of money might very well be a complete waste of money.

    For mass transit to be successful I believe it must meet three criteria:
    It must save time.
    It must save money.
    It must be more convenient than an alternate form of transportation.

    Why would a high-speed train not save any time?  If I take the train to Madison, the following steps would need to be taken.

    I would first commute from my Wauwatosa home to the Milwaukee train station. Depending on traffic, this commute will take anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. Given that I will have to park my car and board the train, let’s call the first commute 30 minutes.

    While the train ride will eventually become high-speed, initial estimates predict that the train will travel 78 mph when it begins and will stop three times along the way. If anyone is being honest, they drive around 78 mph in their car on I-94 on the way to Madison and they do not make any stops. So, the commute itself will take approximately as much time as a commute in a car.

    Once one gets to the train station in Madison, it will then take another 15 to 30 minutes to get to their final destination. With the commutes to and from the train stations, it is likely that taking the high-speed train will actually take one two more hours than it would to take my car.

    If I can’t save time on the commute, the option of taking the train might have some appeal if it saved me money. The estimates I have seen are that a round trip train ride from Milwaukee will cost about $66. To that expense, I will have to add the cost of parking in Milwaukee and the cost of my commute to my final destination in Madison. These costs would likely push my overall cost to somewhere around $75. If I take my car, I will use six gallons of gas. Unless the cost of gas skyrockets far beyond its cost right now, I have no economic incentive to take the train.

    The final factor is whether or not taking the train is more convenient. The commute to Madison is an easy one to make. It is rare that one has to fight traffic and it is easy to find parking even in the downtown area. My Madison commute has nothing in common with commuting to Chicago, where taking the Hiawatha line actually does save me time and money, and I use it nearly every time I go to Chicago.

    People often wonder why taxes are as high as they are, and it is projects like this that cause high tax rates. This is not something that anyone was clamoring for and it is not something the vast majority of us will ever use.

    This is not a train line that will help out any poor people who are in need of mass transit. It will not help people get to jobs who would otherwise not have means to get to those jobs. This is not something that will create economic development.

    If train stations are such a boon to development, why is it so hard to find the Kenosha Metra station? Where is all the commercial development around that line? If the money has to be spent it would be much better used on the zoo interchange or making improvements to our bus system.


    Michael Bark, CPA/CVA/MST, is the principal at Bark Accounting & Tax LLC, Milwaukee.

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