Track to the Future

It is Tuesday morning, Oct. 15, 2020. Businesspeople in southeastern Wisconsin have several transportation options to get around the region that were not available just 10 years ago.

Madeline, who owns a biotech company in Madison, is riding the high-speed train to a meeting with investment bankers in downtown Milwaukee. On the same train Buck, a lobbyist, is on his way to catch a flight out of Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport to Washington, D.C. Also on the train is Wendell, the chief financial officer of a Madison-based community bank, who is on his way to a meeting in Chicago with executives for a larger bank that is interested in purchasing his institution. The train has Wi-Fi, so Wendell is checking his e-mail during the ride. Buck is reading the newspaper on his iPad. Madeline uses the time on the train to prepare for her meeting.

Meanwhile, Bernard, an attorney at a Milwaukee law firm, is riding the city’s downtown streetcar from his office to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. There, he will catch a ride on the high-speed train to Madison and then take a shuttle bus to the State Capitol for a day of meetings with legislators. At the end of the day, he plans to take some clients to a University of Wisconsin basketball game at the Kohl Center, before taking the train back to Milwaukee.
Also riding the streetcar is Stanley, who lives on Milwaukee’s east side and will take the high-speed train to his job at an advertising agency in the Chicago Loop.
In Racine, Kate is boarding the KRM commuter train that runs from Kenosha through Racine to downtown Milwaukee. She lives in a downtown Racine apartment and works at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee. After the train arrives at Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station, she will ride the streetcar to her office.
Kenneth, who lives in Kenosha, also is riding the KRM this morning. He will get off the train in Cudahy and take a shuttle bus to Mitchell International Airport to catch a flight to New York.
In downtown Milwaukee, Tanya is getting off one of Milwaukee County’s modern buses to work at her housekeeping job at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center hotel.
And Arthur, who lives in Waukesha County, is driving through the Marquette Interchange to his job at a downtown Milwaukee bank. Despite the $6 per gallon cost of gasoline and all of the new transit options in southeastern Wisconsin, Arthur, like many area residents, still prefers to drive his own car to work. After all, his hybrid car gets 80 miles per gallon. As he exits from the freeway, Arthur is listening to his favorite talk radio show. He glances out the window at the Intermodal Station and wonders why so many of his tax dollars are used to pay for mass transit systems. He also wonders why so much public debt is being passed along to his grandchildren.
For better or worse, is this the future of mass transit in southeastern Wisconsin?
Several government initiatives are moving forward that could transform mass transit in southeastern Wisconsin during the next decade, providing travelers in the region with several new options.
Many prominent local business leaders are supporting those initiatives, despite the high public costs, because they say mass transit will provide an economic boost to the region.
State and federal officials are working to provide funding for four major mass transit initiatives: high-speed rail from Madison to Milwaukee; commuter rail from Kenosha through Racine to Milwaukee (KRM); a downtown Milwaukee streetcar system; and a dedicated funding source (regional transit authority) for the Milwaukee County bus system.
High-speed rail

BizTimes Milwaukee recently broke the story that President Barack Obama plans to award $823 million in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail in Wisconsin. Most of the money, $810 million, will be used to establish high-speed rail service from Milwaukee to Madison, while $12 million will be used to improve the Milwaukee-to-Chicago rail corridor and $1 million will be used to plan for future high-speed rail service from Madison to the Twin Cities.
The federal funding for the Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail service just so happens to be the same amount as the total cost of the Marquette Interchange reconstruction.
The high-speed rail funds are part of $8 billion from the federal stimulus package that the Obama administration is handing out for rail projects across the United States.
“I am very excited about this project, because it will create new connections for businesses, researchers and travelers,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democratic candidate for Wisconsin governor. “More importantly, this project will create thousands of new construction jobs and will help the City of Milwaukee attract and retain jobs.”
Construction on the high-speed rail project is expected to begin by the end of the year, and the Madison-to-Milwaukee train service is expected to be operational by 2013. However, it will not be operating at full speed until 2016, when the train will be able to go up to 110 mph.
The $12 million in improvements to the Milwaukee-to-Chicago corridor will “create the building blocks for future 110 mph service,” according to the White House.
Current plans for the Milwaukee-to-Madison service include stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown.
The Madison stop is currently planned for the Dane County Regional Airport. However, several critics say the airport is too far from downtown Madison, the State Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus (see accompanying story).
Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel said the state will fully realize the benefits of the high-speed rail system when it is extended in the future from Madison to the Twin Cities. The Milwaukee-to-Madison line is just part of the Obama administration’s plan for a high-speed rail line connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities.
“We’re starting with the Milwaukee-to-Madison line,” Leinenkugel said. “That’s just a leg in the high-speed rail initiative.”
Many business travelers will use high-speed rail, Leinenkugel predicts, because they will be able to work during the trip, which they cannot do while driving. The trains will include Wi-Fi service.
In addition, future gas price increases will make rail travel more appealing, Leinenkugel said.
“If gas goes to $4.50 or $5 a gallon, and we all know it’s going to be there pretty soon, the economic equation is going to change,” he said.

Chicago-to-Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail

Milwaukee to Madison capital cost: $817 million

Current Hiawatha (Amtrak between Milwaukee and Chicago) annual ridership: 766,000

Projected annual ridership (between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago): 1,169,900

Projected annual revenue: $25.1 million

Projected annual operating cost: $40.74 million

Projected annual subsidy needed: $15.6 million

Service: Seven trips between Milwaukee and Chicago daily, six trips between Milwaukee and Madison daily

Speed: Up to 110 mph

Station locations: Chicago and Glenview, Ill.; General Mitchell International Airport, downtown Milwaukee, Brookfield, Oconomowoc, Watertown and Madison

Travel times:

Chicago to Milwaukee: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Chicago to Madison: 2 hours. 53 minutes.

Milwaukee to Madison: 1 hour, 20 min.


Milwaukee to Chicago: $22

Milwaukee to Madison: To be determined

Source: Wisconsin DOT, Amtrak

KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail

The last biennial state budget, signed by Gov. Jim Doyle, included a provision to authorize a car rental tax of up to $18 per rental in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties to fund the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail service.
Unlike high-speed rail, which is intended to connect major cities to each other, commuter rail is designed to help people in smaller communities between major cities get to the major cities or to other smaller communities on the line.
It would take about 53 minutes on KRM to get from Kenosha to Milwaukee, and it would cost $5, according to the South Eastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA).
The SERTA board has yet to implement the full rental car tax rate for the KRM. In addition to the revenue from the car rental tax, SERTA plans to seek federal funds for the KRM project, which is expected to cost $232.7 million to establish.
Officials want to improve the funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System, which they believe will improve their chances to obtain federal funds for the KRM.
Currently, the KRM project is on track to be running in the spring of 2016, according to SERTA. However, that depends on the state Legislature approving a sales tax increase for the Milwaukee County bus system and on the Federal Transit Administration approving grants funds for KRM.

KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail

Capital cost: $232.7 million

Projected funding sources: $158 million in federal grants, $40 million in state funds, $40 million in local funds (from $18 car rental tax).

Projected annual ridership: 2.1 million

Projected annual operating cost: $13.4 million

Projected sources for operating funds: fare revenue,$4.1 million; state funds, $5.4 million; federal funds, $2.3 million; local funds, $1.6 million.

Total projected annual subsidy needed: $9.3 million

Service: 14 weekday trains in each direction

Speed: up to 59 mph

Station locations: Downtown Milwaukee, south side of Milwaukee, Cudahy/St. Francis, South Milwaukee, Oak Creek, Caledonia, Racine, Town of Somers, Kenosha.

Travel times:

Kenosha to Milwaukee, 53 minutes

Racine to Milwaukee; 40 minutes

Oak Creek to Milwaukee, 25 minutes

Chicago to Milwaukee (via Metra and KRM), 2 hours and 22 minutes.


Kenosha to Milwaukee: $5

Source: South Eastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA)

Downtown Milwaukee streetcar

City of Milwaukee officials are working to create a downtown Milwaukee streetcar service, which they say will be a key connection for people arriving at the Intermodal Station in Milwaukee via the KRM, high-speed rail trains or bus, to get to their final destinations.
City officials hope to have the streetcar system up and running by 2013, Alderman Robert Bauman said. 2013 “is a viable goal,” city engineer Jeff Polenske said.
Last year, Congress agreed to split $91.5 million in unused federal funds that had been set aside for transportation in Milwaukee, allocating $54.9 million to the city for the downtown streetcar project and $36.6 million to Milwaukee County to create bus rapid transit service.
The city must provide 15 percent in local matching funds for the streetcar project, or about $9 million, so the total budget for the project is $64 million.
Officials with Barrett’s administration and the Public Works Department are finalizing plans for the route of the proposed streetcar line, which would connect the Intermodal Station through the central business district to Ogden Avenue and Prospect Avenue on the East Side.
Officials are also working on ridership and operating cost estimates, Polenske said.
A formal proposal for the project, including the route, is expected to be submitted to the Common Council for consideration in March, he said.
City officials are seeking additional federal funds to extend the streetcar line in future phases of the project. City officials are optimistic about their chances at getting more federal funds.
“The (Obama) administration has made it clear they intend to invest more in mass transit and rail transit,” Polenske said.

Downtown Milwaukee streetcar

Capital cost: $64 million

Funding sources: Federal funds, $54.9 million; local funds, $9.1 million

Route: Not yet finalized, but will go from downtown Milwaukee Intermodal Station, through central business district, to Prospect and Ogden avenues on the east side.

Milwaukee County buses

Doyle has proposed a 0.5 percent sale tax increase to provide a dedicated funding source for the Milwaukee County Transit System.
The change would remove funding for the bus system from the property tax levy, which could result in a property tax cut, unless county officials increase other spending.
MCTS needs $40 million annually to cover all of its costs, said Jacqueline Janz, marketing director of the Milwaukee County Transit System. The proposed sales tax would generate $60 million per year, she said. The additional $20 million per year would be used to reduce fares, which have been increased by 50 percent in the last 8 years, and to restore routes that have been cut. MCTS routes have been cut by 20 percent the last 8 years, Janz said.
Transit advocates say the county’s bus system is in a funding crisis and needs its own dedicated funding source, rather than competing with other services for property tax revenue, to fund its operations.
A 2008 Public Policy Forum report projected that the Milwaukee County Transit System would have an $18.3 million budget deficit this year, a $23.7 million budget deficit in 2011 and a $21.1 million budget deficit in 2012.
The transit system received about $25 million from the federal stimulus bill, allowing it to purchase several new buses and delay its budget problems by one year, Janz said. MCTS plans to purchase 125 new buses during the next two years to replace old buses.
However, without a permanent funding solution, MCTS still faces major budget shortfalls in future budgets, Janz said.
Doyle, who is not running for re-election, is pushing for the sales tax increase to be enacted by the Legislature during the spring legislative session.
“The bus system in Milwaukee is desperately in need of immediate help,” Doyle said. “We need to get moving on that.”
In 2008, Milwaukee County voters approved an advisory referendum asking for a 1 percent sales tax increase for the bus system, the parks system and emergency medical services.
KRM supporters say the Milwaukee County Transit System’s financial problems need to be solved before the federal government will agree to provide funds for commuter rail.

Milwaukee County Transit System

Proposed funding source: 0.5 percent sales tax

Projected sales tax annual revenue: $60 million

Funds needed to remove MCTS from property tax: $40 million

Funds planned to lower fares and restore cut routes: $20 million

Source: Milwaukee County Transit System

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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