Findings and Discussion
Redevelopment activities are currently still in the planning stage for the solution to the transportation problems of the east-west corridor. No plan has, as of December 9, 1996, been adopted or voted on. We will address some of the best plans and recommend what we feel to be the most valuable aspects of each.
Because of the dilapidated state of I-94, freeway reconstruction is the most apparent solution to our problem. This is also the most near-sighted alternative, as the freeway will simply deteriorate again. This plan would run about $788.3 million (8/20 Journal Sentinel) , while traffic congestion and pollution would not be alleviated. Mere reconstruction would not even modernize the existing freeway, which already exceeds its capacity daily. Rebuilding I-94 with modernizations is a more viable alternative. All ramps would be on the right-hand side, which would be safer. This alternative to just rebuilding would likely include bus and car-pool lanes to I-94, totalling $1.8 billion.(8/20 Journal Sentinel) Professor Peng, during a lecture on transportation, stressed that "we can't build our way out of it." Any variation of reconstruction or modernization of the freeway system would be trying to do just that.
The freeway will need to be re-paved ($800 million), but the next step should lie in some form of mass transit. Our current transit system consists of buses. Buses, however, have been criticized for not being profitable enough and not luring motorists out of their cars. A fellow bus-rider in an interview (Casey Palbicki) stated " It's bull-shit! You have to wait forever and then it just takes way too long to get anywhere. Transfers.. without my UPASS, I'd never ride!" This sentiment seems to be shared by a number of people who have the option of automobile or mass-transit. Adding more routes or more frequent service would not decrease travel time much, since buses cannot exceed the speed limit on city streets. Transfers will also still take alot of time. Ridership still would not rise immensely, either. Combining more buses, especially freeway flyers, with reconstruction of the freeway may help congestion somewhat. Express transit buses, which would have stops every half mile and operate on city streets would also likely be added to our current bus system. This is what will likely happen if a light rail or commuter rail system is voted down.
The plans receiving the most attention right now are those incorporating the use of light rail or commuter rail to span the east-west corridor. Light rail is defined by the Transportation Research Board as:
a metropolitan electric railway system characterized by its ability to operate single cars or short trains along exclusive rights of way at ground level, on aerial structures, in subways or, occasionally, in streets, and to board and discharge passengers at track or car-floor level.(Light Rail Transit)
Commuter rail, such as the one proposed for Milwaukee, would not be electric, and may not meet other qualifications of light rail. Both of these systems can operate on current railroad tracks. The construction of light rail is more complicated because of a need for a power source, normally above the cars.
The most popular of these plans were highlighted in the August 20 issue of the Journal Sentinel. Option A, as indicated by the paper, is a light rail system that would span 22.1 miles. (see map) This option takes the cars from downtown in four directions, north past UWM to Bayshore Mall, south past the Historic Third Ward for a few miles, west past Marquette and the County Grounds to the zoo, and northwest along Fond du lac Avenue to Capitol Court. Noticeably, this plan does not go to the new stadium, nor the Mitchell International. This plan has an estimated cost of $607.3 million.
Option B has a very similar route through the city. This plan, however, would cover fewer miles (21.3) and cost more to implement ($621.5 million). Again, neither Option A nor B got to the airport or the new stadium, though a spur may be put in to go to the stadium. In a Journal Sentinel poll, 71% of the people asked thought of light rail as "faster, more reliable public transit," and 50% said they might ride a light rail. (8/20 Journal Sentinel)
Some people on either side of these polls may have envisioned a train like the Metra system in Illinois. This would be considered commuter rail. Option C deals with a light/commuter rail system proposed by the Alliance for future transit as an alternative to the high-cost light rail proposals. This system would cut the cost nearly in half at $317.7 million. This savings in a relatively long rail (23 miles) is a result of using alot of existing rail. This system also does not try to negotiate through the inner-city and the east-side. Option C does go to downtown, Marquette, the stadium, State Fair, and the zoo. The one inner-city spur travels along 27th Street up to Fond du Lac Avenue. This plan, however, neglects service to UWM and the east side, along with the Milwaukee County Grounds and , once again, the airport. Option C would have fewer stops than a light rail system as it operates out to downtown Waukeshau. Option C would be faster and cheaper to build than the first two, but the train would not be electric, thus causing more air and noise pollution. An option might be an integrated diesel/electric engine that may convert to electricity as it gets closer to the city. (Geneva, Switzerland has this kind of a bus system)
Option D, as revealed Thursday, December 5 in the Journal Sentinel, reveals a plan put together by business leaders, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. According to Larry Sandler of the Journal Sentinel staff, this commuter rail would run along the Union Pacific and West Allis Lines. This option is said to cost $40 million, which a German rail car manufacturing company might cover. This company, owners of Siemens, would operate the rail for a ten year trial period. This proposal is being considered as a possible lead into light rail, easing the transition. Obviously, this is a very tempting option because of the minimal investment and risk to the city.
Any option or combination of options should be cutting-edge technology, as it should not be considered as a quick-fix, but as an investment in the region's future. Buses are to be rerouted to serve a new rail system. Light rail or commuter rail should be environmentally friendly. The stations are to be aesthetically pleasing, and measures should be taken to keep both the stations and the trains safe. The cars must be comfortable, and maybe vending machines could provide refreshments, and revenue. Since shopping areas seem to be places of interest for these lines, space must be available for carry-ons. Most of all, we do not want to see someone else's obsolete idea of commuter rail trains or light rail cars. We need an investment in Milwaukee's future, not some other city's past!
The benefits of rebuilding the freeway without improving public transit are practically non-existent. I-94 will be driveable for another couple of decades. Adding special lanes for buses and carpools would promote the use of those lanes and likely reduce congestion for a time, but eventually traffic will again catch up to technology. These lanes would be nice additions to a complete new system, which would include light/commuter rail.
Expanded bus service and express transit buses would provide the benefits that buses currently provide. Less pollution and some public use would be magnified by these changes, but we would eventually, once again, grow out of the technology. With buses rerouted to meet rail lines, they should provide a valuable service and allow for less need for transfers.
The benefits of light rail are again controversial. Light rail would provide inner-city job seekers a fast means of transportation to their jobs, often located on the west side or in Waukeshau county. Light rail should also stimulate the development of businesses close to the lines, hopefully improving the inner-city economy. Some people claim $1 billion of development in Portland, Oregon. (8/20 Journal Sentinel) Light rail should lure people out of their cars. Both of these systems would likely cut air pollution, as well as the need for parking structures downtown. The Milwaukee County Transit System (buses) could see a rise in ridership, if rerouted, to meet light rail stations.(5/22/95 Journal Sentinel) Fewer jobs driving buses may occur, but a total increase of 600 jobs is estimated, not to mention construction crews. Jobs created because of light rail and new development activities could total well over 1000.
Commuter rail would provide similar benefits, but would likely be geared more towards the suburbs than the inner-city, and the east-side. Commuter rail would mainly provide a descent alternative from driving in along I-94 to downtown Milwaukee. Some Milwaukee residents may make the reverse trip, too. Option D nearly takes all inner-city involvement away. Both options would still allow for less air pollution, and should pull people out of their cars. Commuter rail can be expanded out to Madison or down to Chicago, maybe even up to Green Bay. The biggest benefit is that the less expensive commuter rail could be married to light rail in the future, with minor alterations, so transition would be easy. Any rail system should be able to instill some sense of community pride, as our city reaches out toward its future, believing in it.
Brief mention of monetary costs of the east-west corridor options has been made. Freeway costs to rebuild and modernize, along with bus and carpool lanes would run nearly $2 billion. Another $3.7 million would be required each year to operate. Light rail, however, could cost around $1 billion with buses to implement. Costs to operate a light rail/bus system would be around $150 million per year. (8/18 Journal Sentinel chart) Obviously, Option C and Option D would reduce these costs immensely.
We must address the concerns of such high costs with a means of paying for them. In a Journal Sentinel poll, the most favored means of paying for transportation is with a $.01 per gallon gas tax (70% in favor). Also receiving nearly 50% approval were: create a regional transportation authority, levy 1% sales tax, and charge tolls on freeways. We want to see the price of riding a light/commuter rail stay competitive with a current bus ride and under $2 to keep it affordable. St. Louis businesses allow people to ride free during certain off-peak periods to promote shopping downtown. Other businesses should be encouraged to pay for ridership by their employees, too.
Down the road, the cost of not building a feasible public transit system will be the most expensive to our community, so we feel that none of the costs involved can really outweigh the expected benefits of a light rail or commuter rail system, or both.
Seventh National Conference on Light Rail Transit: Volume 1. National Academy Press; Washington, D.C. 1995; p. 3.