Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Madison wants on the streetcar bandwagon

Madison WI - Yet another city is trying to jump on the latest craze, the streetcar bandwagon.

Madison Wisconsin has recently proposed putting streetcars onto their downtown streets primarily for economic reasons. The University of Wisconsin's Badger Herald gives a very balanced look at this streetcar proposal.

The Mayor's office is touting the streetcar proposal as reducing pollution and being an economic tool, in short a win-win deal for the city. The Mayor sadly overlooked many things, as other cities do as well, when they dream up these schemes to stick their political hands into your wallet.

They just see the streetcars on the street making their town look quaint. They don't see the costs involved in making a streetcar line work. Politicians and rail proponents seem to have a blind spot when it comes to considering maintenance facilities, power costs, triple the maintenance costs (rail, vehicle and overhead), other associated costs as well as problems for such a line.

The Mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, and streetcar proponents are trying to claim there will be an economic boom, a reduction in automobile traffic, reduce pollution and it won't effect the existing bus system if it is built. And I'll be elected as the next President of the United States too.

The facts are that it won't create an economic boom and the effect the the number of vehicles in the downtown area won't change. The same number of vehicles that are currently travelling on the streets in downtown Madison will continue to travel on those streets and the same amount of air pollution will be present. More importantly is the fact that it will severely hurt the existing bus operation.

The streetcar proponents refuse to understand that it is much more costly to run a streetcar line. Where is the local transit system going to get the money to run both the bus system and which will amount to nothing more than a tourist line? The Madison Metro isn't swimming in money and to saddle the transit system with an expensive toy designed to create a legacy for Mayor Cieslewicz is foolish.

Here's what will happen if Madison builds this streetcar line. Taxes will go up, the Madison Metro will increase fares and cut service on the bus side, air pollution won't be reduced one bit, traffic will be a little more congested, the city will still be stagnant economically and the Mayor will get to place a brass plaque somewhere in the city touting him as bringing streetcars to Madison.

The city of Madison simply doesn't have the transit ridership to warrant any type of public transit rail line beside the Amtrak station. Even if it does attract tourists, it won't attract the number needed to make the line even remotely worthwhile.

Madison Metro has 223 buses* while TriMet in Portland Oregon, used frequently as an example in the article, has 825 buses (not counting LRV)*. The population of Madison is around 221,000 and population of Portland is around 529,000. A big difference between Portland and Madison. There is also a difference in mindset between the two cities with Portland being more transit conscious than Madison is.

Milwaukee's streetcar proposal is more realistic than one for Madison is. At least Milwaukee has better ridership numbers and a larger population than Madison.

It would be one thing if the Madison had excessively high bus ridership and the line was being placed in a high ridership corridor for actual transit ridership but it isn't. It's basically a downtown tourist line that will siphon off needed operating funds needed to run the bus system.

This streetcar proposal is simply a con job being played on the citizens of Madison so that Madison politicians can get hold of more of their money to spend and the Mayor can create a legacy for himself. A big Lance goes out to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz for pushing this unneeded project.


Jason McHuff said...

Having grown up in/around Madison and now living in Portland, as well as being a transit rider/advocate in both places, I feel moved to respond.

There are transit people here who question spending money on streetcar tracks that serve new corridors instead of existing riders. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it. Do the citizens want Portland to be a "world-class city" (which is a reason for the streetcar) and not just a working-class city?

But why would a streetcar have to be a tourist line and "compete" with Madison Metro? Why couldn't streetcar line(s) run the length of the isthmus and replace some/all of the bus service (which would instead feed the streetcar at either end)?

It seems that higher-capacity/quality transit makes sense in places where travel is constricted into corridors, such as Madison's isthmus. Also, there are people who will ride a train but not a bus. Instead of people moving to the isthmus and grudgingly use buses, people would move to the isthmus (partly) because of the streetcar.

That being said, I'm not saying that a streetcar system is the best use of money. However, they DID try a low-fare bus circulator ("Downtown Get-Around"); almost nobody rode it.

RDC said...

It would be one thing if Madison could afford it and had the ridership base and population to make it work but they don't. The Madison Metro is scraping by as the cost to operate just the bus service continues to increase. The last thing the transit system needs is to be saddled with an expensive "toy" to operate when it can barely afford to run what it has in place now.

Where I live, there was a streetcar proposal brought forth by Pittsburgh about a year ago. Again, I heard the exact same pro-rail rhetoric about the proposed trolley line as I heard about the LRT line (and Madison's streetcar proposal):

Massive development (they can't even get the promised LRT line development in place after 20+ years and have high vacancy rates in the downtown core)

Economic boom times (the LRT was to bring economic boom times and the city almost went bankrupt, the transit system is poised to go under plus the city is consistently losing employers and jobs).

Reduced congestion (the LRT was to reduce congestion but the congestion has steadily increased)

Cleaner air (the air has gotten worse due to more congestion)

The 3 busways we have move more people overall than the LRT line does and it costs a fraction of the price to operate 3 busways than 1 LRT line yet the city now wants a new trolley line so they can be a "world class city" too (They've been trying to be a "world class city" for decades and still aren't close).

A world class city won't emerge from any type of rail line, especially when the line isn't being used for transportation but for the hope of development (at taxpayers expense of course) and political legacy reasons.