“It’s not 1960”

Rail Coalition member William C. Anderson wrote the following “It Seems to Me” column that appeared in the Monday, November 15, issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram . Anderson was writing in response to an October 3 “Letter from the Editor” column in which Leader-Telegram Editor Don Huebscher opined that the reason passenger trains disappeared in the 1960s was “lack of customers,” and that the same would be true today.

In response to Editor Don Huebscher’s October 3 column about passenger rail for Eau Claire and the nation in general (“Why did passenger rail go away before?”), I think he is confusing the issue. His contention that there will not be enough passengers to justify its existence because that is the way it was in 1960, is really thin reasoning. In 1960 most Americans, – including those in Wisconsin – were enthralled with the ease with which they could manipulate their automobile on the new, uncrowded freeways.

It’s a different world today, I’m afraid – and it’s clearly not 1960 out there. The fact is that throughout the country, wherever passenger rail exists as an alternative to auto or air travel – i.e., 300-to-500 mile trips – there are resounding successes.

What isn’t confusing is that those same freeways are very dangerous, (accounting for 33,808 Americans’ lives in 2009), are becoming more and more crowded each year, are much more costly than a fixed railway to add to and/or maintain, and many more indisputable facts.

Huebscher makes a point of comparing travel costs for the automobile versus the train. His guess that a train ticket to the Twin Cities would cost $30 to $35 is pretty accurate from the studies I have seen, and four gallons of gas at $3 is only $12, or about one-third of that $35. However, the cost isn’t only the fuel, but the initial cost of the car, insurance, maintenance and the other associated costs, which are 50 cents per mile according to the federal government. So let’s be realistic and compare the $35 by rail to $45 for the 90-mile trip to Minneapolis by car.

Then there is the concern that politicians are looking at short-term political benefits rather than long-term issues. Though that is often the behavior of politicians, I believe proponents are acting just the opposite this time. Consider the fuel savings and our dependence on foreign oil alone. If we can build, operate and pay the costs that will help create an estimated 13,000 jobs (on the Milwaukee-Madison route where the distance and fares are similar to Eau Claire-Minneapolis) and still do it for $10 less than driving, there must be a whopping savings in fuel consumption!

And don’t worry about ridership; everywhere passenger rail has been implemented in this country, it has exceeded all projections. Of course, this can’t be done everywhere – such as going from Wausau to Superior, for instance – but modern studies, business models and projections are very reliable, and those projections say a 110 mile per hour passenger rail line between Chicago and the Twin Cities will require six trains per day and will return $170 for every $100 invested.

There are other advantages to passenger rail too numerous to discuss here, but just consider this sampling; mobility for seniors and handicapped people; time wasted while driving; stresses and dangers; serving 33,000 college students between Eau Claire and River Falls (not to mention the 50,000 at Madison); economic development; business development; job creation; options for commuters; benefits for attracting/maintaining our brightest and best Wisconsinites; newly thriving communities online; and better connections to state business and political activity,

Yes, the economy is in the ditch and spending is out of control, but that is because politicians do not understand the proper role of government. It has always been my contention that governing of any issue should be done at the lowest level of government that can efficiently and honestly perform that need. However, there are some issues that require the highest level of participation, i.e., the federal government – such as the military, good foreign policy, and others that meet your own definition – and a good and efficient transportation system certainly fits that mold.

Now may not be the ideal time for additional federal programs, but there is no denying that we need to have a safe and efficient alternative travel choice soon, if for no other reason than to begin to stop the carnage on our roads. Let us complete the Milwaukee to Madison rail segment with the money that cannot be used for any other Wisconsin benefit and encourage our leaders to have serious discussions about our national and state transportation needs. As the economy recovers we should be discussing a date certain (based on proven indicators and projections) that we can begin to implement the remainder of this worthy addition to Wisconsin’s new attractive educational, business and economic environment.

Anderson, an Eau Claire architect, is a charter member of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition and is co-chairman of the group’s communications committee.

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