By David A. Wise
Transit experts expressed divergent views on the cost and benefits of a proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail link during a discussion before the Independent Business Association of Wisconsin in Milwaukee today.
Thomas A. Rubin of the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, and Kenneth Yunker, deputy director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, who assisted in the planning process for the line, debated the potential benefits and downfalls of the proposal.
The project as currently proposed would spend more than $200 million to connect nine Wisconsin municipalities along the Lake Michigan shoreline and also allow travel to Illinois communities served by the Chicago Metra train service.
Rubin recommended the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority study an express bus service down I-94, a bus-rapid transit system on arterial streets that would forgo dedicated lanes and expanded van pool programs as alternatives to commuter rail.
Based on a recent study Rubin conducted, he criticized the RTA’s projected ridership figures and $250 million capital costs as likely inaccurate. Rubin said a review of other bus and rail projects has shown capital costs to be 21 percent above projections and ridership 32 percent below predictions.
Rubin said the cost to operate the system would be $28 per-trip, per new rider, only about $3 of which would be recovered through fares. He compared that to the about $3 per trip cost for each Milwaukee County Transit System Rider
Yunker acknowledged local transit needs improvement. He advocated for a dedicated funding source, such as a sales tax, to fund those improvements and the KRM line. He also acknowledged the difficulty in coordinating with freight, but noted the RTA has been working with freight operators to address the issues.
Yunker disputed Rubin’s characterization of the capital cost and ridership figures as inaccurate. He noted that the projection inaccuracies Rubin cited referred to estimates made from 1982 to 1995 and that improvements have been made to the projection methodology.
Yunker pointed out that Rubin’s $28-per-trip cost estimate for KRM included capital and operating costs for the whole system divided by the number of new transit riders only, while the his bus figures do not count capital costs and are divided by total riders. Yunker said Rubin’s figures also do not account for the fact that the average MCTS bus trip is three miles, while the average KRM trip would be 15 miles.
“When you’re doing comparisons, you always want to do them fairly,” Yunker said.
When all riders and costs are considered, the average cost per passenger, per mile, is similar to that of the bus system, Yunker said.
Yunker noted that the RTA studied other alternatives, similar to those Rubin suggested. Yunker said the I-94 bus would not provide access to the lakeshore communities as the KRM line would, and bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes would be impractical due to the amount of land that would have to be acquired.
Rubin disputed the economic impact numbers the RTA has advanced as unrealistic. The RTA’s figures suggest a $2.1 billion increase in property values within a one-mile corridor of the line, a figure Rubin said amounts to a $568,000 boost in property values per-rider. He said the studies that figure is based on do not account for other factors, such as tax breaks and zoning changes, that have encouraged development along rail lines.
The KRM line would run on the same tracks as freight rail. In addition to difficulty coordinating schedules, Rubin said another problem is freight operators often demand to not be held liable if they are involved in accidents with commuter trains, and that could make securing insurance difficult or impossible for the KRM line. The increased rail traffic would create noise problems and danger at road crossings.
“Commuter rail is a very dangerous way to move people,” Rubin said.
Rubin also noted that local transit near the proposed stations is inadequate and difficult to coordinate with train schedules.
Yunker defended the economic impact projections for KRM from the
UW-Milwaukee study Rubin cited, saying they were based on national studies of rail corridor development. Yunker noted that the permanent nature of the rail service is what spurs development.
“You can look at the national studies of it, you can go down and look at the stations in Chicago and in the north shore suburbs, and you’ll see what the impact is,” Yunker said.