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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The $54 question: Is rail worth it?

From a commentary by Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

With anti-rail activists whipped into a frenzy over threats that passenger rail services pose to Wisconsin and the state's finances, it's time to step back and take a closer look. Are rail opponents onto something, or are they on something?

Rail opponents rail against the cost of rail. They would like to have the money for rail either returned to Washington or spent on highways. Dream on. The $810 million is a part of a larger plan to restore intercity passenger rail across the United States. This is a federal project that won't be derailed by Wisconsin politics. Restoring rail is expensive, but transportation projects are expensive. The Zoo Interchange will cost more than $2 billion to reconstruct. The Marquette Interchange was close to $1 billion. Where's the outrage over that spending?

In any case, the money can't be spent on highways, and even if it was sent back to Washington, it would be reallocated to another state to build their rail system - leaving Wisconsin in the dust. (We also would be sending millions of our tax dollars to another state to build rail instead of us getting the hundreds of millions from other states.)

The core of rail opponents' argument seems to focus on the $54 question: Can we afford the annual operations costs of the added service? Those annual costs will amount to around $6 million a year. That amounts to one-fifth of one cent of our gas tax. So when a driver fills up with 20 gallons of gasoline at $2.70 per gallon, the bill will comes to $54. Just .04 (yes, 4 cents) out of that $54 will go to pay for intercity rail.

Their argument also assumes that there are absolutely no benefits associated with the 4-cent investment that comes with a $54 purchase. It assumes that no one will benefit from jobs created to build the service. That no one will benefit from the development that occurs around rail stations. And that no one will benefit from being able to relax rather than fight traffic on the interstate.

Opponents also like to say that the train fares will be unaffordable. According to the state Department of Transportation, one-way fares will be between $20 and $30 for the ride from Madison to Milwaukee. Compare that to the cost of driving. Using federal reimbursement rates for mileage, driving the 78 miles between Madison and Milwaukee costs $39. That means taking rail saves between $9 and $19 each trip. It saves a lot more for someone in Madison taking the train to Mitchell International Airport to catch a flight due to the saved costs of parking. And it will boost traffic at Mitchell.

It seems like there's a lot of rage over just 4 cents out of every $54.

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