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Editorial: Supporting the high-speed rail issue in Wisconsin

(The following editorial appeared on the Watertown Daily Times website on August 30, 2010.)

WATERTOWN, Wisc. — Today we're going to jump back on the high-speed rail issue for a bit.

Boy, it sure has heated up in recent weeks, no doubt because the primary election for governor is just a couple weeks away and both Mark Neumann and Scott Walker have almost made the issue the centerpiece of their campaigns. As most of our readers know, the high-speed project is adamantly opposed by these two candidates and they have vowed to stop it if they are elected. We don't know if that's campaign rhetoric or not, but we hope that's all it is.

Had this not been an election year, we can't help but wonder if the high-speed rail initiative would have been so much in the limelight. It's been in the planning stages for well over two decades and support has been strong right up until the federal grant was approved a short time ago.

We remember back in the spring of 1998 when Gov. Tommy Thompson authorized an extension of the Hiawatha line from Milwaukee out to Watertown. The extension was for 88 days and the times were not particularly good. Still, 32,446 people used the train in those 88 days just on the section between Watertown and Milwaukee. It was amazing.

Then, in 1992, we asked people in Watertown to sign a petition to urge Tommy Thompson, who was then chairman of the board of directors of Amtrak, to get the Empire Builder to stop in Watertown. After all, Watertown was one of the bigger cities on the route that didn't have a stop. Well, over, 6,800 people signed that petitionbut it was to no avail at that point.

Since those years there has been some progress but it has been painfully slow until the grant came through this year.

There certainly are a lot of opponents to the high-speed rail initiative, and we can understand some of the reasoning, but we just don't think some people are seeing the broader issues.

First of all, there is concern over Wisconsin's potential to cover upwards of $10 million in operating costs. Well, $10 million is a lot of money, but when you spread it over the 5 million plus people in Wisconsin it amounts to only $2 a person a year. As a comparison, Watertown's senior center requires a city tax subsidy of about $8.50 per per person in the city. We are not suggesting eliminating the senior center, but just like this rail project, the senior center is for the common good in Watertown. That's four times the cost of the rail line, yet no one is suggesting we ought not support that center. It's the same for the library and the airport and many other city services. They require a subsidy, but they are part of the quality of life we enjoy in our community.

Another area that's often overlooked in the debate over this line is the fact that the tracks from Watertown to Madison will be completely rebuilt and the tracks from Watertown to Milwaukee upgraded and changed from single track to double track.

You might answer, “So what!” But the fact of the matter is the tracks from Watertown to Madison will have to be rebuilt one way or the other in the coming years. Classen Quality Coating, Watertown's newest industry which is located on the Madison line tracks, has installed a double siding for its products. Make no mistake about it, the train tracks were a major factor in the company locating here. Right now more interest has been shown by industries that want to be adjacent to this track. The further along you go on the track, through Waterloo, Sun Prairie and other smaller communities, they will find upgraded tracks an asset when trying to bring new industries to the community or help existing industries expand. That alone is worth the value of the project.

And, we can't underestimate how attractive a Watertown station will be for businesses that want to locate near this development. More people coming to and from the station will mean more economic activity in that area. It can only help to make retailers in the area stronger.

This train service will also encourage more people to look to Watertown as the wonderful place it is to live. Some of these folks will come out on train and see what we have to offer in the way of quality schools, abundant parks, retail areas, the safety of the community and much more. It won't happen overnight but people will see this as a perfect place to raise a family and occasionally take a trip to Milwaukee or Chicago to enjoy the best of the big cities without having to live there. More quality homes will generate more tax revenues and help the economy in general.

There's also going to be some people who will use the trains on a regular basis to get to and from work, but we really don't think that will be the overwhelming majority. It might be people who have appointments in the big cities, but it will also likely be people who are catching a flight at Mitchell Field in Milwaukee and can go directly from Watertown to the airport without the need to pay $10 a day to park. It could be people who will connect to one of Amtrak's many long distance trains that originate right at Union Station where this rail project terminates.

We suspect as time goes on students from Maranatha Baptist Bible College and Luther Prep School, predominantly from communities other than Watertown, would find rail an attractive way to travel to and from home.

Almost without exception, when a train station is built and convenient train schedules implemented,, passenger usage goes up and the area surrounding the station grows and becomes more upscale. We'd love to see that happen here.

All of this is not to mention that almost everyone agrees that the price of gasoline, currently somewhere under $2.75 a gallon, will only go up once we get through this difficult recession. As worldwide demand increases with the economic recovery, gas will most certainly be higher here than ever before in history.

Get gas up to $4 or $5 a gallon, which it will become down the road, and the train will look cheaper every day. By the way, lots of people will say they can drive to Milwaukee and back on five gallons of gas or about $15, give or take. That's true, but it's only part of what it costs to drive. You also have to add in the maintenance, insurance, original cost, and little things like parking, etc., and pretty quick that $15 can double or triple!

As we watch the debate on the viability of this rail project, we find it very interesting that just a couple days ago, after Oconomowoc was pushed out of the running for a station because of a lack of “interest” in the line, four other communities quickly got in line, asking to have Oconomowoc's stop! Those cities included Waterloo which one year ago went on record opposing the rail project. As time went on, Waterloo wisely decided to work with the train officials in an effort to minimize noise and traffic issues, and when they saw even a slight chance of getting a station, they moved quickly to let it be known they dearly want the stop.

While a lot of people are looking at this rail line as a financial burden we can't afford, we believe it should be looked at as an economic development tool and we also believe it should be looked at from a long-term perspective and another transportation option.

This issue will be in the news for some time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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