In this day and age Americans have become accustomed to choices in everything,
and that includes travel. That changed September 11, as long security
lines became standard for most airline flights, which can make airport
waits as long as the flights themselves. But there might be an alternative
for the easternmost portion of the district if a handful of state transportation
departments, more than 200 lawmakers, the Federal Rail Administration
(FRA) and Amtrak have their way.
Lawmakers and eight Midwestern states are seriously considering
a new high-speed system that would link cities throughout the region
and ideally the nation. The Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS)
is proposing to put trains at speeds of 110 miles per hour on about
3,000 miles of track. With Chicago as a central hub, the system
would branch in every direction, including along an existing Amtrak
route that would go through Milwaukee, Madison and La Crosse, Wisconsin,
cross the Mississippi into Minnesota and go through Winona and Red
Wing on its way to the Twin Cities. A proposed bus feeder system
would also establish depots in Rochester, Mankato, St. Cloud and
Duluth, Minn., and across the state line in Eau Claire and Rhinelander,
Whether high-speed rail is the most economically sound and
consumer friendly choice remains to be seen. A high-speed train
route rolling through the Midwest sounds grand, but it may not
be so spectacular if taxpayers end up paying for the serviceespecially
if there is not proven demand for such a service.
The biggest obstacle to the plan is fundingan estimated $4.1
billion over 10 years to connect Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin,
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. Most states
have enthusiastically supported the proposal, with the assumption
that they would have to pick up just 20 percent of the tab, with
the remaining 80 percent to be federally funded" the same template
for how the interstate highway system got built, supporters point
"Ultimately if the feds decide never to do this, it would
be very difficult for any state to develop a program like this on
their own. It's not entirely impossible. Florida has experimented
with private partnerships with private monies, but it does make
it more difficult," said Sam Kahn, principal planner for the
Office of Passenger Rail Transit for the Minnesota Department of
Aspirations for funding were squashed last year with the defeat
of the High-Speed Rail Reinvestment Act, a $12 billion program for
nationwide high-speed rail. The act currently has 67 Senate and
190 House sponsors, more than a dozen of whom are from district
states. The bill will be presented to Congress again in 2002, and
most likely beyond.
The proposed system would use 66 train sets to connect metro areas
using mostly existing rail rights of way, typically Amtrak routes
that are shared with freight trains. Infrastructure improvements
to rights of way to support the higher-speed trains are estimated
at $3.4 billion, with trains themselves costing about $650 million.
The project goal is to improve mobility and stimulate economic
development, a strategy that has plenty of supporters and skeptics.
Virgil Roberts, former Wisconsin Assembly member from Holmen, is
The Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) is proposing to put
trains at speeds of 110 miles per hour on about 3,000 miles of track.
With Chicago as a central hub, the system would branch in every
"I think we certainly need [a high-speed rail system], but
I think they set their sights too high for what the cost will be.
They could get to 110 mph, but in order to do that they're going
to have to put a lot of roadbed in," said Roberts, who also
worked for the Milwaukee Railroad as a train dispatcher for 37 years.
"I bet the costs will double," he said.
According to the MWRRS's most recent executive report (February
2000), if the system is built and fully operational by 2010, it's
forecast to attract almost 10 million passengers annually, or about
four times more than if existing passenger train service continued
Although average MWRRS fares are expected to be about 50 percent
higher than current Amtrak fares, they could well be an attractive
option compared with air travel between the same travel points.
For example, the trip from the Twin Cities to Madison, Wisconsin,
is about 260 miles. High-speed rail fares are estimated to be $83
for business travelers and $53 for nonbusiness (one-way). At 110
mph and making about a half-dozen stops, the train would make the
trip in about two and one-half hours. A comparable flight would
save half the time, but cost two to five times that amount. A car
trip, while considerably less expensive than high-speed rail, would
take twice as long.
That middle ground between air and auto is where the travel void
lies, say rail advocates, and thus the opportunity for high-speed
rail. Even some critics concede that the only way the project makes
economic sense is to use it for distances of around 200 miles. Less
than 3 percent of airline travel is under 225 miles, says Wendell
Cox, a national transportation consultant, making rail distances
of about 200 miles competitive with automobiles but not airplanes.
But rail advocates have much greater plans for the final system.
The FRA has designated 12 corridors throughout the country for high-speed
rail. At this stage in planning, the corridors do not meet because
the system is concentrated on shorter-distance travel, but the expectation
is that corridors will ultimately be connected much like the interstate
Engineering for engineers
Each state involved in the MWRRS is at varying stages of the planning
game. Rail plans in Wisconsin got a boost when the Legislature allocated
$2.5 million to build a new station at Milwaukee's Gen. Mitchell
International Airport; an engineering and environmental assessment
study is already under way for the new terminal. The state also
purchased the Milwaukee Amtrak station for $1.4 million, and with
the help of another $2.6 million in Federal Transit Administration
money it is rehabilitating that terminal.
But even Wisconsin is a long way from its version of the bullet
train. Assuming federal funding goes throughwhich itself is
not a givenWisconsin would still have to come up with a fair
chunk of railroad change to complete the project. Estimates put
total costs of the high-speed line in Wisconsin at about $625 million,
which means the state's 20 percent share would be $125 million,
a daunting proposition given that the state is currently facing
a budget deficit of more than $1 billion.
Other states, like Minnesota, are waiting. The Twin Cities-to-Chicago
corridor would account for one-third of the system's ridership,
about 3.2 million passengers annually, so it is a key player in
this corridor, according to Kahn. The state began working with the
eight other states in 1996 and has completed planning studies up
to this point, she said. Minnesota is asking for $10 million in
state aid to pay for engineering studies for the 130-mile segment
of the route located within state borders. The state would use existing
passenger stations in Red Wing and Winona and is looking into redeveloping
the St. Paul Union Depot.
Despite the costs and other obstacles, it's not hard to find ardent
supporters of the proposal, however. More than 150 business leaders
from La Crosse signed a petition last November to encourage legislators
to support the High-Speed Rail Reinvestment Act in Congress.
Jim Hill, executive director of the La Crosse Area Development
Corp., feels that it will be a tremendous advantage to have a transit
alternative for the business traveler. "It should be viewed
as a huge infrastructural undertakingthousands of operational
jobs would be created," he said. The city of La Crosse has
already spent almost $2 million to rehabilitate the city's formerly
dilapidated train depot, in anticipation of the high-speed line.
"We hope Congress will be able to dislodge these bills because
of the huge advantage of stimulation it would have on the Midwest
economy," Hill said.
Some critics feel if a high-speed rail system is so necessary,
then states should be able to fund it on their own. But Richard
Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Coalition,
said it is necessary for the federal government to be involved,
"because of the same reason they're involved with building
highways, airports and waterways. ... If you expect the automobile
user to pay his full share of the highway right of way, the right
of way will never be built. It's the same for railroads."
Kevin Brubaker, project manager for high-speed rail at Chicago's
Environmental Law and Policy Center, argued that the public cannot
expect the states to make rational transportation decisions when
the federal government is providing massive subsidies to every other
mode. "There's a long history of the federal government playing
a role in assisting with interstate transportation projects,"
Brubaker said September 11 showed the nation how overly reliant
it was on air transportation. "When air service didn't work
well, the nation came to a standstill and we are still seeing problems
because of that," he said. "The best way to secure airline
safety is to get people out of the air who don't belong therethe
people taking shorter trips, like Minneapolis to Chicago. That frees
up airport security for the long-distance flyer. That's also where
the airlines make the most money," Brubaker said.
Opponents of a subsidized high-speed rail system agree that September
11 demonstrated the economy's fragility. But according to Cox, "We
really shouldn't be doing frivolous things. We should be spending
public money for the purpose of achieving public purposes and on
infrastructure that people will use."
That would not include high-speed rail, according to Cox and other
critics, who charge that high-speed rail benefits are based on optimistic
and even misleading assumptions, rather than quantified demand.
One example is the fact that MWRRS is projecting that a fully built
system would be self-sufficient in terms of annual operations, which
also happen to not include start-up construction and train-buying
costs. Only time will tell, but even this modest feat is something
the vast majority of existing passenger rail linesAmtrak,
intra-city light-rail, or other passenger rail lineshave been
unable to do.
MWRRS also claims high-speed rail will help relieve highway traffic
congestion. Cox, who is also a member of the Amtrak Reform Council,
says project advocates need to recognize "that if we were seeking
to reduce traffic congestion, we [should] be doing things for intracity
transport, not intercity transport" because traffic between
two geographically separated cities contributes very little to highway
congestion in either city. An FRA study estimated that high-speed
rail would divert 3 percent to 6 percent of auto trips destined
for other cities along a high-speed rail corridor.
"We're talking about a market share [for passenger rail] that
is vanishingly small," said Shef Lang, former senior research
fellow at the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation
Studies. "We're talking 1 percent of the intercity market in
passenger miles. Rail is not going to compete for many short haul
A look at the Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed loop might offer
some explanation. A study of this corridor found that round-trip
fares would run $40 to $60, yet the one-way time for the 85-mile
trip was estimated at one hour and seven minutes. That's about 15
minutes faster than the trip by car (assuming negligible highway
congestion as well as quick transfers into and out of rail depots
to the final destination) for about five times the cost. Early construction
estimates for the loop are about $175 million and do not include
the trains, train stations or control equipment.
The FRA study predicted that high-speed rail would divert a significantly
higher percentage of intercity air trafficin some corridors,
as much as 20 percent. But given the limited number of destinations
sprouting from any single high-speed rail hub (in the case of the
Twin Cities, it would be just one-Chicago), the broader impact on
total airport congestion would be negligible.
"Air travel in this county is so decentralized, that you
can't take away one market from the airport and have it be a big
deal," Cox said. "So this view that high-speed rail is
going to be an alternative to flying is absolute romance. It's not
Cox also felt that the facts often get misrepresented. Rail advocates
"do not understand the difference between a subsidy and a user fee.
If you do not buy gasoline, you do not pay for the roads. I do know
there is general fund tax subsidy for local roads in communities.
For the most part, all of the money that goes into the intercity
highways comes from the gasoline tax or user fees," Cox said. "These
people are playing with words. Virtually all of the spending on
airports in this country, for 30 years, has been through user fees"
that are included in the price of a plane ticket.
Lang said people have a romanticized view of rail, some of which
is fueled by flawed analysis. Rail studies, including a 1996 FRA
report, often bend methodological rules for ridership and other
estimates, putting the best possible face on the prospects for high-speed
rail projects around the country, Lang said. They have to, he said,
because accessibility makes the automobile more competitive in almost
every market regardless of how long or short the trip is.
Many supporters point to the so-called Northeast Corridor, which
runs 20 high-speed trains between Boston and New York, as an example
of what could be. In operation for over 20 years, it saw ridership
grow after Sept. 11 and dwarfs all other passenger rail lines in
terms of passengers and revenue. The Midwest system is modeled after
it, but some are skeptical of the comparison, pointing out that
the Northeast line runs continuously through corridors with population
densities that are scores higher than Midwest corridors.
"The Washington-New York market has a little chunk of that
[high-speed rail] market, and they can have it. And there are people
who look at that and say, 'You know, if this were run by a private
corporation instead of by this Mickey Mouse government-supported
operation, mainly Amtrak, they might be able to hang in there as
a private entity and do reasonably well,'" Lang said. "But
this is 19th century technologywe should never forget that.
It was great then, when the alternative was buggies on unpaved roads
or stagecoaches or riverboats chugging along at 3 or 4 mph up and
down the Mississippi. But this is no longer the case. The highway
sets the standard. ... Behind every single one of these [rail] initiatives
is a bunch of people who are convinced ... that the automobile is
the curse of modern civilization."
The idea that the federal government could pay 80 percent of a
rail project through their town or state is enough for some to do
cartwheels, while others would rather lie across the tracks to stop
it altogether. Unless federal funding comes through, neither group
will get the chance to demonstrate its zeal for or against high-speed
See map: Proposed
Midwest Regional Rail System