Straightening out the rails

By Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

I ran into a friend the other day, and we got to talking about the proposals for new transit options in our area. This guy is a lawyer and former public official and a generally well-informed person. So, I was concerned that even this well-versed citizen had a fuzzy understanding of everything that was going on. I can’t blame him because it can be confusing. It led me to think that maybe a quick primer might be a good thing.

So, here are the three major initiatives in transit going on right now.

High speed rail. This is a federal and state project linking Madison to Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond by 2013 and the Twin Cities sometime after that. The train will stop at a station near Monona Terrace in downtown Madison. Virtually all of the costs will be paid for by the federal government through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (the stimulus bill). Plans are moving along relatively briskly for station design and related parking on Wilson Street. With the station comes tremendous economic development potential. So, I am proposing that the city move up already planned projects for a new hotel, public market, bike station and perhaps some new office space.

Commuter rail. As opposed to high speed rail, which travels long distances between cities, commuter rail is intended to serve local daily commuters and others who want to get around the region. The trains are smaller and lighter. Commuter rail is proposed to extend from Middleton through Madison to near Sun Prairie or perhaps to the airport. In some places it might share the line with high speed rail. That’s good because it could reduce costs. Unlike high speed rail, commuter rail is not yet a certainty. It depends in part on whether it is adopted as part of a regional transit plan. See below.

Regional Transit Authority. The RTA is a citizen committee made up of representatives of Madison, Dane County, the Dane County Cities and Villages Association and the cities of Verona, Sun Prairie and Middleton. It has the authority to levy up to half cent sales tax in central Dane County, essentially Madison and its nearest suburbs. The new revenue (about $40 million) could go for expanded bus service in the region and in the city, park and ride lots for commuters, expanded service for elderly and handicapped riders and commuter rail. But the RTA has passed a resolution saying that it won’t enact the tax until it is approved in a referendum. That vote has not yet been scheduled, but I’m hoping that it will be on the ballot next spring. None of the money from the RTA would need to go to high speed rail since that is being covered by the feds. Some funding could go to commuter rail, but that needs to be determined in a plan for the use of the money that should be produced by the RTA late this year.

The bottom line is that a lot of really exciting things are happening in transit right now. The fact that so much is going on that it might create some confusion is a nice problem to have.