Konopacki cartoon

Clark Johnson and Nona Hill have been advocating for passenger rail, it seems, forever.

The couple, who live near Westport just outside the Madison city limits, can't understand why Madison is no longer considering commuter rail in its public transportation plans. It's all bus rapid transit or nothing, they complain.

What troubles them is that Madison is uniquely positioned for rail. Most of the basics are already in place. The corridors and, in most cases, the tracks are already there. No need to close lanes on East Washington Avenue and other major thoroughfares and dedicate them for express buses when you could be moving people through the isthmus unimpeded by traffic.

And the cost, they insist, would be roughly similar.

Indeed, I wondered, what ever did happen to the commuter rail concept that as near as 10 years ago was on the front burner of Madison, Dane County and a fledgling Regional Transit Authority? Some were predicting that it could be in place in as little as three to four years.

One of the major proponents of passenger rail was former County Board Chair Dick Wagner, who presided over a committee called Transit 2020 for the express purpose of studying the benefits, shortcomings and financing of building a commuter rail system.

The committee determined that it was viable especially from Middleton through the isthmus and out to Sun Prairie. Because of Madison's geography, tens of thousands of potential riders lived with walking distance of the corridor. What was needed was a regional transit authority that would have the power to raise money through the sales tax to support the system.

Former Gov. Jim Doyle succeeded in getting RTAs approved, and Wagner became a member of our area's RTA and chaired it as well. It, too, liked the route. Included in the RTA's recommendation was a half-cent sales tax to support and maintain it. Some neighboring small villages and towns prematurely stuck an advisory referendum on their spring election ballots to express their opposition to a tax, and it was soundly defeated.

I called Wagner to see if he had an explanation for why commuter rail seemed to drop off the face of the earth. No, it wasn't those rump referendums, but a series of events that delayed federal support. The feds didn't think the Madison area was dense enough, he said, but it made up for that with land use plans that concentrated people in central service areas. That is still true today, even as Dane County has shown enormous growth.

But there's no denying that when Scott Walker won the governorship in 2010 and Robin Vos became Assembly speaker, both passenger rail and commuter rail were shoved to the side.

Walker used President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, which included $800 million for passenger rail to link Madison and Milwaukee, as a wedge issue in the 2010 campaign. He was able to use rail by dividing Madison and Milwaukee from the rest of Wisconsin to help him get elected. Divide and conquer at its finest.

His election succeeded in axing the rail expansion, one of the all-time examples of bone-headed governing.

Wagner pointed out that not only would the new rail link the state's two biggest cities, but it would have paid for signaling, upgraded tracks and more that could have been used by commuter rail in Dane County as well.

Vos, with his lockstep Republican legislators, nixed commuter rail by simply repealing the authorization for the regional transit authorities that had been formed in many parts of the state and forbidding their formation. That included the Milwaukee area and even his own county, Racine, and other parts of southeastern Wisconsin. That meant RTAs that had been formed to promote regional bus systems and other transit solutions for neighboring communities would have no way to pay for them — except, of course, the already overburdened property tax.

What Dick Wagner is hoping is that if and when Madison moves to bus rapid transit, it won't foreclose natural corridors like Middleton-Madison-Sun Prairie because somewhere down the line the public will come to see the benefits that rail transportation could provide. Dozens of communities, some smaller than Madison, have built systems that have been enormous successes.

Clark Johnson and Nona Hill, as well as thousands of others, would be thrilled.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.