Passenger rail offers Wisconsin many advantages
The Wisconsin Association of Railroad passengers has been analyzing and advocating for continued and improving rail passenger service in Wisconsin for 40 years. The association consists of people from across the state who see this mode of transportation as a critical option to the state’s well-developed highways and air travel.
Rail uses only one acre of land compared to five for roads to move a like number of passengers or tons of freight. Recent ads by a major railroad highlight the great advantage of rail, which needs just one gallon of fuel to move a ton of freight more than 400 miles. This means rail offers higher efficiency and cheaper rates and causes less air pollution. Railroads are the only transportation method that pays property and income taxes. Most competing systems are tax-exempt. Therefore, support for passenger rail enhances private industry that is fully taxed.
Our organization worked with both political parties to ensure Amtrak across the state was not moved to northern Illinois during the maintenance issues with the old Milwaukee Road. U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis., authored and took through Congress the funding to preserve our existing Amtrak service. Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson served as chairman of Amtrak and brought about the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) and the idea of service through Madison as part of an integrated nine-state system.
U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., was a prime mover of development of the intermodal rail station at the Milwaukee airport, and Democratic Gov Jim Doyle was prime sponsor of the current $800 million grant under federal stimulus programs to start Madison service.
Current political attacks in the Republican primary are disturbing, and I must address them in a “Wisconsin bipartisan” way. This is too important to our economic future to step back from or fight over. We finally received the benefit of federal grants that will lead to additional jobs and tax base in Wisconsin. The allegations of annual operating subsidies are an issue to be resolved by setting fares and operating frequencies that maximize user funding. The entire premise of the MWRRI, when completed through La Crosse and up to the Twin Cities, was clearly a positive cash balance on operating and maintenance costs. The idea that we reject spending federal tax dollars that we pay on a system of great benefit to Wisconsin is wrong.
Those dollars will provide Wisconsin jobs now and in the future in a way that many federal expenditures do not. This is not a brief or glitzy program, but rather a great and permanent infrastructure upgrade. This is a program for a “sum-certain” amount of spending. Our rejection of these dollars would not reduce taxes; the money would simply go to more populous states to upgrade their rail systems and put Wisconsin at a future economic disadvantage.
We need passenger rail upgrades in Wisconsin now, and this is the way to start.
John Parkyn of Stoddard is president of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers. Readers can reach him at (608) 787-1236 (days) or (608) 788-7004 (evenings).