It Actually Makes a Difference Where a Train Station Is Built

Congratulations, it looks like your city is going to be getting high-speed rail service.

Just one thing. Because of various political and economic considerations, the station is going to be located out at the airport — far from any walkable destination and a $12 cab ride from downtown.

That’s the scenario that’s currently facing Madison, Wisconsin — unless a more sensible plan prevails. A high-speed rail connection between Madison and Milwaukee is in the stimulus pipeline, but many of its benefits could be compromised if the Wisconsin Department of Transportation plows ahead with the airport station plan. Two members of the Streetsblog Network have written about the issue in recent days. First, Logan Nash at Congress for the New Urbanism:

yaharastation.jpgThe Yahara location: Will WisDOT do the right thing?

Thankfully, it seems clear that livability and sustainable transportation planning
are part of Obama and DOT head Ray LaHood’s plan for American transport. So why is Wisconsin using the excuse of federal funding to forge ahead with its shortsighted plan to locate Madison’s HSR station at the airport?

This is the question being asked by planner Barry Gore, who has researched and is pushing for an alternative site on unused land at the intersection of First St. and E. Washington Ave. Yahara Station, as it is being called, would bring passengers into an urban area much closer to the capitol without changing the path of the train. It would be a compromise between the airport site and an even closer downtown alternative that WisDOT rejected because it would require trains to back up in order to continue on to the Twin Cities. But the city and the state are fretting over any changes to the current plan for fear of jeopardizing the current “shovel-ready” nature of this Midwest HSR segment.

Urban Milwaukee has more details on the advantages of the Gore plan, and why placement of the Madison station is important to Milwaukee as well:

Why does this matter to Milwaukee?  The station’s location significantly affects the mobility of travelers from Milwaukee and Chicago upon arrival in Madison.  A more central location affords flexibility for spouses to work in different cities, greatly increasing the number of available jobs.  It allows students to more reliably get from one city to the other. A downtown-to-downtown connection also greatly increases the ability for businesses to collaborate and grow in both cities.

CNU’s Nash adds:

The Madison Capital Times sums the general spirit up well with their opening depiction of a future where President Obama is on the inaugural Midwest HSR ride. He is so flabbergasted by the fact that the train will veer away from Madison to stop at the remote airport that he jumps off downtown for a beer. The administration has stated that we need to be investing in the future of our cities. Surely the feds will accommodate a minor change that will bring this arm of the Midwest HSR project in line with their own urban principles.

More from around the network: Tom Vanderbilt at How We Drive writes about Texas’s misbegotten ban on cell-phone use in school zones. Walk Bike Berks County writes about the forensics of crash investigations where a bicycle is involved. And Tempe Bicycle Action Group has the story of a hit-and-run driver in Phoenix who killed a cyclist and then tried to turn his car in as part of the Cash for Clunkers program. Apparently, that move caught the eye of someone who had heard the vehicle description on a news report — and then called in an anonymous tip that got him arrested.

  • Chris

    I believe that it makes sense to build a line to the airport, especially in an information-based economy. Madison has an edge in this economy, given that it is a cool, funky town with a good college at its center.

    I understand the planner’s point – and the benefits from connecting two downtowns are pretty much guaranteed. But it is too locally focused on the current economy, and really wouldn’t be a revenue generator for the city.

    Making the downtown area more accessible for travelers, in addition to people at the airport, is a bit risky, but worth the risk given the potential return.

  • Railsprawl

    Train lines are not inherently good. You build a station in an area with no land use controls and you fuel sprawl. The transportation should serve the desired land use, not the other way around. The whole point of passenger rail transportation is to encourage dense, walkable cities and towns that are environmentally and economically efficient. Engineers worried about backing trains in and out should not be making decisions about the future growth and sustainability of the Madison area. They are operating ten levels above their pay grade. This is a governor/legislature decision about what kind of state they want their kids to live in. Lastly, given how badly local transit service is suffering, spending money on airport links is asinine. This is about the most inefficient way possible to spend scarce transit dollars. Rumor has it that the people running USDOT at the policy level below LaHood are smart enough to intervene in stupidity like this in Madison.

  • Chris

    @Railsprawl – I think the argument about backing trains in and out is a red-herring. Good Eye.

    I think your “whole point about whole point of passenger rail transportation is to encourage dense, walkable cities and towns that are environmentally and economically efficient” is narrow, however.

    Not thinking about the economic development impacts and how the economy is adjusting is short sited. Madison definitely has an edge over other mid-sized Mid Western cities in terms of its cultural cache and great school, and can really thrive with the right investment. Making a connection with the airport will give it the chance to thrive.

  • @Chris Why would somebody want to take the high-speed rail from Milwaukee, or Chicago to Madison’s airport? A light-rail connection or something from Madison’s downtown to the airport makes sense, but high-speed rail ought to go downtown to downtown. And then maybe stop at the airport on the way out of town, like the Hiawatha does in Milwaukee.

  • Railsprawl

    On the contrary Chris, I am thinking precisely about economic development and where it should take place — in central Madison, not on the airport fringe. The point of trains, unlike planes, is that they can drop people off in the middle of the city. You want to drop business travelers and tourists alike off in the middle of the city, not the airport. The train is an alternative to air travel and should not be subordinated to it. If the goal is to provide local transit service to people working around the airport then buses would be much, much cheaper. This is a strategic transportation investment that will help decide where jobs are located and economic activity occurs. If you want your future activity at the airport you further fuel the sprawl bomb that has already detonated around Sun Prairie

  • I’m sure early airport planners would have put all airports in the downtowns if not for land and airspace constraints. So considering train stations can actually fit into the cities they’re intended to serve, I don’t know why there would even be a question as to where to put the station.

  • Bob

    This is all a lot of nonsense. You put a train station where it is needed, and where it will get the most use. If service is needed at the airport, then a stop there would be necessary. There is no reason that another station cannot be located closer to the downtown area as well, along that same line! It’s absurd how some people can make things way more complicated than they really are.

  • Train stations outside of the downtown has worked really well for Detroit and Buffalo.

    Learn from cities who do it right, or repeat the mistakes of the past.

  • Andrew

    This is the same problem with the line from Tampa to Orlando. The Orlando station would be placed at the Orlando International Airport far away from downtown and everything else. What’s the point of taking a high speed train to Orlando and arriving at the airport? You can’t take a plane into downtown.

  • Chris

    I take back everything I said. I thought it was for a light rail line.

    This is absurd.

  • As an out-of-state undergrad at UW-Madison in the ’90s, I took many flights out of MSN (Madison’s airport code) for Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. The problem with MSN is that it is at the end of the line in the airline’s hub-and-spoke model. If you want to fly from Madison to the rest of the world, you will pay through the nose and have to connect through a messy hub along the way – usually O’Hare, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

    Airline passengers leaving from MSN don’t drive (or take a train) from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Chicago – those travelers can reach any destination they desire from their local hub. Instead, MSN serves south-central Wisconsin flyers by feeding them to O’Hare and other hubs on their way to the rest of the world. Officials should bear this dynamic in mind when determining station location.

    Don’t get me wrong: Air-rail connections AT HUBS are VERY important pieces of HSR systems. HSR can help to reduce congestion and delays at major airports by doing the job that regional jets are doing today. HSR should connect downtown Madison to the cross-country and international flights leaving from O’hare and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Field – not the other way around. However, the primary purpose of HSR should continue to be connecting regional population centers that are within a few hundred miles of each other.

    Therefore, the argument that trains should stop outside of Madison to avoid a time-consuming reverse maneuver on the way from Chicago/Milwaukee to Minneapolis is a particularly irritating one. The vast majority of early adopters to this service will be those travelers between Chicago/Milwaukee and Madison because travel times on this segment will be in the sweet-spot of 2-3 hours. It’s 350 miles, as the crow flies, from Chicago to Minneapolis and the challenges of building true HSR through the Driftless Zone and the Mississippi River valley will have the project tied up in EIS for a long time. Even with the most optimistic estimates, it will be at least a decade before the line between Madison and Minneapolis is brought up to HSR standards and even then the trip time between Minneapolis and Milwaukee/Chicago will still leave many passengers opting for air travel. So to focus on the needs of Minneapolis-bound passengers at the expense of thousands of downtown Madison residents (many of whom live car-free) and employees is missing the forest for the trees.

  • Willis

    Just as a question, but I thought the Talgo trains being bought from Spain were seven car double head units. So there would be no backing out, it would just take an extra 2-3 minutes while the engineer walked from one end of the train to the other. The only exception would be the Empire Builder, but I am sure that since that train takes 2 days from Chicago to Seattle, they could add in an extra 20 minutes while the train backs up, since it will have more than gained this time with the higher speeds between Chicago and Madison.

    The HSR will eliminate many of the flights from Madison, not that I have ever flown from there, as people will hop the train for the 1 hour to Milwaukee or 2 hours to O’Hare, I would be amazed if any usage was lost by not having a stop at Madison’s airport. The real argument seemed to be that the airport has plenty of parking for the HSR, which goes to show that someone has already overbuilt the airport. If this is the sole argument, then a new parking structure and/or local mass transit will solve the problem, especially since many of the HSR users will likely be from government offices and/or UW-Madison, both of which will be much closer to a centrally located station.

  • Ian Turner

    Sean, that’s particularly ironic since Orlando already has a centrally located Amtrak station downtown.

  • HFK

    @Sean Galbraith: Have you been to Europe? Almost every rail hub in a major city that I can think of there has the main station(s) directly adjacent to downtown, which requires trains to reverse direction after making the stop (there is no “backing out” with double-headed trains!) This is true for Rome and Florence, most of the stations in Paris, and of course Munich, probably the most active hub I saw for long-distance rail (of all speeds).

    I think if we are to make any sane decision about HSR (which can go dreadfully wrong if not done well), we need to look outside our borders and see what the Europeans are doing… it won’t kill us.

  • It seems like they’re doing this mostly so people can park and ride at the train station. That’s not necessarily a great reason.

    One problem with the downtown station though is that it’s still 1.6 miles from the Capitol. Most people aren’t going to walk that, especially with luggage. So I think there will still need to be a transfer. It looks like a light rail line is in order to connect the University, downtown, the train station and the airport. I think I’d still rather see the station 1.6 miles from downtown than 4.8 miles though.

  • BOB2

    Typical DOT brain lock-access is more important than intermodalism in this case. Most DOT people are highway cement heads and have a lack of understanding of access issuses, because it is a culture where “real men drive cars”. This airport is a podunk operation that will not benefit significantly from rail access. This might work at a major regional hub like Ohare, but Madison ain’t Chicago. It’s a stupid idea that needs significant rethinking.

  • Bob

    It costs a small fortune to build a rail route to anywhere, along with train stations and crossings! These public transportation needs could much more easily be met just by using buses, and for a hell of a lot less taxpayers money.

  • Bob: “It costs a small fortune to build a rail route to anywhere, along with train stations and crossings! These public transportation needs could much more easily be met just by using buses, and for a hell of a lot less taxpayers money.”

    That’s what GM would like you to believe. Trains cost more to build but less to operate, and can be completely electrified, which may matter someday.

  • Bob

    Mark: We already have electrified buses. Few train systems support themselves without major government subsidies, (Amtrak, NY subways, etc.), and none have the flexibility of bus routes which can be altered anytime to meet changing passenger needs! In this economy, taxpayers should try to hold in the reigns on projects which take a long time to construct, and require huge financial outlays.

  • Bob, the only bus systems in this country that support themselves without major government subsidies are the ones that use the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.

  • Badgerexpat

    It seems to me that much of the discussion in favor of a station closer to (but far from “in” Madison’s downtown—wherever THAT unicorn might be found) imagines the issue from the perspective of people traveling from somewhere else TO Madison, thrilling to the sight of the Capitol dome, and so on.

    But consider those who are setting out in the other direction, toward Milwaukee, Chicago, and perhaps in Chicago departing for whatever destination on the Amtrak system they have in mind. The vast, overwhelming majority (surely around 95 to 98%, if the Yahara station is where the train is) will have to get there by car, either on their own or dropped off, or by taxi. That in fact applies to any so-called “downtown” location. The HNTB station location study puts walking distance at 1/4 mile, with “extended” walking distance one half mile. Surely, of course, fit University students wouldn’t balk at a one-mile hike, even with luggage, that still describes a circle that incorporates only 3% of Madison’s land area. Besides, according to the feasibility studies for this thing, 60% of Madison boarders will come from out of town! All the more reason for easy accessibility by motor, and gobs of parking space.

    As for those going TO Madison, for what it is worth, a friend was buttonholing people at the Milwaukee School of Engineering “Traintime” a few days ago. Gratifyingly, there was very general excitement about the possibility of being able to get to Madison by train. The reason usually cited was “traffic”. As for station location, “rail fans” (my friend’s term) were all against the airport location. Everyone else bluntly didn’t care where the station was, so long as they could get to Madison by train. Period. Note: most rail-fans don’t ride trains. (Neither do model railroaders.)



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