October 8, 2009

Forum: To build commuter rail, officials first have to fix bus systems

Standing room only at Wednesday's night KRM forum.

A forum was held in Racine Wednesday night on KRM as a "game-changer." Here's a few notes from the forum ...

* It was a good-sized turnout. About 110 people attended the forum, which was held in the DeKoven Center's Great Hall. It was a standing-room-only crowd full of local business, government and community leaders.

A panel assembled at Wednesday night's KRM forum.

* As is the trend in recent months, speakers focused on KRM as part of a wider "transit" issue that includes southeastern Wisconsin's eight bus systems. There's no dedicated funding source (ie. a sales tax) to pay for buses in the Milwaukee region, which is unusual. Nineteen of 22 U.S. cities considered peers of Milwaukee have some sort of tax or revenue source to pay for buses. The lack of dedicated funding in southeastern Wisconsin is creating a crisis in funding that's resulted in fare increases and service cuts, according to Ken Yunker, head of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

* The reality is KRM won't move forward until the region figures out a way to pay for buses. Mayor John Dickert continued his stance that buses should be handled on a regional basis. This would allow buses to connect Racine to Union Grove, Kenosha and Milwaukee, while also linking Burlington to Milwaukee and Kenosha. Now, the systems are too scattered to effectively move people from one city to another, which hurts efforts to create a regional economy between Milwaukee and Chicago.

A KRM supporter dresses the part.

* There's still no talk about how buses will be paid for. The Legislature and governor created the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, which can levy an $18 car rental tax to pay for commuter rail. But Milwaukee and Milwaukee County officials are making sure that won't happen until buses dealt with. In Milwaukee that could be a sales tax, but a sales tax in Racine or Racine County is unlikely.

* That leaves open speculation on how the Racine area will pay for transit. No one is talking specifics, but get ready for some discussion about a "wheel tax," which is allowed under state law. A wheel tax charges vehicle owners a fee on top of the state's annual registration fee. All proceeds from a wheel tax must be used for transportation-related costs.

* A sales tax was, briefly, mentioned. But any sales would apparently require a referendum.

* Jim Eastman, a long-time advocate for commuter rail in Racine, emceed the forum. To cheers from the crowd, he vowed not to retire from his job until he can take commuter rail from Racine to Milwaukee or Chicago.

* A couple of officials pointed out that even if estimates about the potential impact of KRM are way off, the numbers are still staggering. KRM-backers claim the train could, in the long run, create 71,000 jobs and $2 billion in development along the rail line. Even those numbers are cut in half, and half again, they're still major economic development for southeastern Wisconsin and Racine.

* RAMAC's Roger Caron, RCEDC's Gordie Kacala, state Sen. John Lehman and Jody Karls were recognized for their work in support of KRM.

* The title of the forum, "Tapping into Transit as a 'Game-Changer' was inspired by an article published on RacinePost.com.

Part of the crowd at the forum.


  1. Certainly Jody Karls has spent almost 3 years moving KRM forward and deserves the recognition.However all Lehman has done is unravel the RTA's efforts while the budget was in Joint Finance. He talks about supporting KRM, but is spineless when it comes to a sustainable funding source. He is the worst sort of political "leader"

  2. They just don't get it! The people don't want trains or buses, they want cars, if the city had a brain, it would build a car company making economical, but cute, urban electric cars and create jobs at the same time!

  3. Good point on Lehman. Those that know him said years ago he would give lip service to KRM but never support it with a critical vote. That is exactly what he did. He put the nail in this round of KRM with his vote but still can sucker people into believing he supports it.

    Wake up people. Lehman is the enemy of KRM not its friend. Watch his votes not his shallow words. He doesn't know how to stand up for anything. At least his time in Madison is coming to an end next year.

  4. I would say fight KRM fight KRM, however the pro KRM folk are doing a better job then we could!

  5. What a waste of time and resources. Downtown Racine is not a destination site, we don't have a population of 2 million to support this losing proposition. Worry about putting people to work now, and think of a realistic way to do so. These pie in the sky ideas are riddled with unintended consiquences that Racine just cannot afford.

  6. A fair point Anonymous 11:38, but the train is not stopping downtown, but out on State St.

    I hope people understand that this project will run at a 90% + loss that will have to be sustained by the taxpayers.

  7. It really is amazing that this city is turning down real projects by real people with real money.

    Meanwhile they are pushing for a train that is guaranteed to run at a massive loss that will have to be paid for by a taxbase in a community pushing 20% unemployment.


  8. This is all about getting stimulas money and nothing about solving a need! There can be no KRM unless every county falls in line, so the political pressure builds. Politicians are like sheep, they follow the herd and very seldom think at all!

  9. Electric commuter rail lines, interurban lines and electrified streetcars were very popular in their day. Many cities, Racine included, relied on the service to extend boundaries into the suburbs. Where the trains and trolleys went, people went, and they built their houses for ready access to the lines.

    These systems were killed mostly by design, by GM and other large auto manufacturers who lobbied, cajoled, applied business pressures on the railroads and even bought up many of the lines to convert them to less convenient buses.

    The relatively unpopular switch to buses was never intended to make public commuter transportation better; it was really meant to make it worse, so more people would switch to cars. Commuters were supposed to dislike buses, compared to the relative speed, comfort and convenience of a personal automobile.

    Now, it’s hard to say at this late date, whether efficient commuter rail would regain its historic ridership, but it might be well to remember that it wasn’t the lack of popularity that killed the commuter lines; it was, rather, the relative absence of availability once the auto manufacturers decided to do them in.

  10. Randy - with due respect(?), can you cite some references to your theory.

  11. Anon,

    Pretty well known, and there's lots of books. GM was even prosecuted by the Justice Department, though paid only a token penalty. Do your own research. What am I, your research assistant!!??

  12. Borrowed this from wikipedia. Knock yourself out.

    Adler, Sy "The Transformation of the Pacific Electric Railway: Bradford Snell, Roger Rabbit, and the Politics of Transportation in Los Angeles." Urban Affairs Quarterly, Volume 27, Number 1, 1991.
    Bottles, Scott L. Los Angeles and the Automobile, University of California Press, 1987. ISBN 0-520-05795-3.
    Black, Edwin "Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives," especially Chapter 10, St. Martins Press 2006
    Fellmeth, Robert C., Project Director, "Politics of Land: Ralph Nader's Study Group Report on Land Use in California," pp. 410-14, Grossman Publishers, NY 1973
    Fischel, W.A. (2004). "An Economic History of Zoning and a Cure for its Exclusionary Effects," Urban Studies 41(2), 317-40.
    Goddard, Stephen B. Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century, Basic Books, 1994
    Hanson, S. and Giuliano, G. editors (2004). The Geography of Urban Transportation, Third Edition. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1-59385-055-7.
    Kwitny, Jonathan, "The Great Transportation Conspiracy: a juggernaut named desire," Harper's, February 1981, pp. 14–15, 18, 20, 21
    Kunstler, James Howard (1994). The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. Free Press. ISBN 0-671-88825-0.
    Norton, Peter D. Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, MIT Press, 2008. ISBN 0-262-14100-0
    Snell, Bradford C. American Ground Transport: A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus and Rail Industries. Report presented to the Committee of the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, United States Senate, February 26, 1974, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1974, pp. 16–24.
    Slater, Cliff (1997). "General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars," Transportation Quarterly 51. [1] Puts forth the argument that the streetcar was eliminated by the market.
    Thompson, Gregory Lee (1993). The Passenger Train in the Motor Age: California's Rail and Bus Industries, 1910–1941. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH. ISBN 0-814-20609-3.

    "The Great GM Conspiracy Legend: GM and the Red Cars", Stan Schwarz
    "Conflict of Transportation Competitors", Akos Szoboszlay
    "The StreetCar Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit", Bradford Snell
    "Paving the Way for Buses – The Great GM Streetcar Conspiracy, Part I – The Villains", Guy Span, baycrossings.com, "Part II - The Plot Clots", Guy Span, baycrossings.com
    "Did General Motors destroy the LA mass transit system?", The Straight Dope, 10-Jan-1986
    "Clang Clang Clang Goes the Trolley, Part II", Tim Hendrix, L.A. Nocturne, June 26, 2003
    "Street Railways: ‘U.S. vs. National City Lines’ Recalled", Paul Matus, The Third Rail, September 1974
    "Taken for a Ride", Jim Klein and Martha Olson - a 55-minute film first shown on PBS in August 1996
    "Taken for a Ride", Jim Klein and Martha Olson - Free on YouTube

  13. Demise of street railways further complicated, particularly in big cities, by political corruption. Politicians "privatized" many of the lines in exchange for kickbacks to help build big city political machines.

    So, as service on the formerly public lines deteriorated, politicians could point the finger at the private firms, even campaigning on the issue, while in reality picking up millions through the back door.

  14. By the way, I don’t take public transportation and I don’t necessarily favor commuter rail, which probably doesn’t return any more than 60-70 percent of its cost on the best-used lines.

    Still, I believe it’s always useful when thinking about the future to examine how we got here in the first place. It’s usually based on earlier decisions, right or wrong or somewhere in between, such as subsidizing highways with billions of dollars and raising billions more in road and fuel taxes in favor of highways. That wasn’t an inevitable outcome, just a choice, made by lots of people with lots of business and personal interests at stake.

    Is it irrevocable? I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth thinking about in a debate whether to likewise heavily subsidize another form of transportation.

    Both forms of transportation are examples of socialism, the state providing services that private concerns cannot, either because of the expense, the lack of return, or the magnitude of the undertaking. The question is whether we want one or the other, or a mix of both, and how much the public’s willing to pay to support them.

    These are good questions, but one thing isn’t inherently evil and another inherently good.

    There’s no real philosophical difference between lavish government spending for a highway system or for Amtrak or for commuter rail.

    These are just choices.

    If it were merely a question of capitalism, we’d still have privately owned turnpikes and railroads that bypassed most places because the freight didn’t pay the freight.

  15. Do you have anything on the conspiracy to take GM down? I'm reading the "Elvis Is Still Alive Theory" now. It's facinating!

  16. Can anyone think of another way to get the federal government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure development into southeastern Wisconsin?

    Commuter rail is the single-best jobs program going for the city. If someone has a better plan, step up quick and let everyone know about it.

  17. Good point. We've often made our best investments in time of economic downturn. How else did we get the courthouse, the post office and a lot of other infrastructure improvements that still enhance this town?

  18. Here is one of the many links talking about how GM killed interurban rail.

  19. Why does it matter where the money comes from, Tax money is tax money state or federal. To piss it away is a shame, and those of you who are so eager to piss it away should also be ashamed.

  20. Regional bus system ?? You people are nuts !! NO- NO city in the US has this. I forgot about Grayhound Bus CO. I guess most do then. Why should I pay taxes to fix Milwaukee's buses ?? How many will take a bus from Burlington to Milw. ? Or even Racine. Enough to pay for itself--I do'nt think so. Even with rosey glasses on !!

  21. Dustin the Fed's are wasting money they don't have on projects we don't "need", and can ill afford, all over the country, they are wasting our money everywhere.. Just because they are stupid enough to waste it in Seattle, Salt Lake City and Tampa they should also waste it here?? How many shovel ready bike paths are NOT being paid for right now? If you really want to help our economy throw 100 million dollars into our community and DON"T Build the choo-choo!

    Otherwise let's help the 20% un-employed get out of our city to places with lower unemployment rates, like Appleton, Madison et al.
    Wasn't the "President" gonna build a High Speed rail system in the same area? Why can't we just propose an extension of the METRA from Kenosha to Sturtevant. At least that makes sense! Most people in Racine can get to to Sturtevant via bus, cab or a friend. Same is true for Burlington and Union Grove residents. and the beauty of that idea is the the Amtrak already goes to Mitchell Field and DT Milwaukee and it also goes to Chicago!! Or the slower commuter METRA Train could get you to all the stops on the way to Chicago downtown. It would likely result in more service to Kenosha and to Racine. KRM will not solve a problem we don't have. It's a feel good boondoggle Mr. Eastman and others are trying to shove up our wallets!

  22. I am an almost life long bus rider, and couldn,t agree more we need to fix the buses first. Mike Glasheen knew that shrinking the routes was a mistake and our mayor more or less acknowleged that.

    The bus lines need to expand and connect with the other communities.

    I know there are those who oppose a sales tax increase, but I think that is the way to go. I hope we can move on this as soon as possible so we can get krm going.

  23. Those that will use the KRM to get to their job most likelly are those that already have a job, I have not seen a single study that shows that companies at the Milwaukee Chicago corredor are hiring at this time or are building new companies to employed our community... This looks more like at the end of the project we will just end with a big bill to pay... And with no jobs or stable income as a whole how are we going to pay for that.

    Lets invest Federal and State money in creating jobs giving companies oportunities in Racine have them grow and come to us and do studies to make sure our bus system really serves our passangers when that is acomplish, then we can move in to the KRM as an additional comodity.

    Don't rush this lets go be on the supply and demand.