When Small Business Times launched the Milwaukee Biz Blog two months ago, we invited the community to comment on issues that affect the local economy.
We invited folks to sound off on our new soapbox about whatever they felt passionate about. The intended topics were as diverse as the industries that we serve: banking/finance; business services; commercial real estate; economic development; education/human resources; government; health care; insurance; manufacturing; residential real estate; retail; and technology.
Interesting enough, the most blogged-about subject thus far has been passenger rail service, whether it be commuter rail, AmTrak, the KRM (Kenosha Racine Milwaukee) project, trolleys or generally just … gulp … plain old light rail.
The transportation blogs so far have been favorable toward passenger rail. Here’s a sampling of some points made on behalf of passenger rail in the blog:
“We continue to hear a lot of discussion about a commuter rail connection between Milwaukee and Chicago. From my perspective, it can't happen fast enough … Locally, there has been discussion about the future of the Chicago/Milwaukee/Madison triangle. We can no longer think only of Milwaukee when we plan on economic growth. These three communities are literally and figuratively building toward one another. One very evident sign is the number of Chicago residents who are fueling the Historic Third Ward revitalization by purchasing condos up here.”
-- Bob Welke, chief executive officer of Blue Horse Inc. in Milwaukee.
“Throughout the Midwest, passenger train ridership is on the increase, and it appears that the number of runs and lines will continue to expand within the foreseeable future.”
-- John Katsantonis, senior vice president of the technology practice at Northstar Counselors of Minneapolis.
“From a hard-nosed business perspective, there are many reasons to support KRM: job creation, economic development, increased tourism dollars and some relief on our increasingly congested freeways … Change is hard for many, but the pocketbook oftentimes speaks loudly regarding personal transportation decisions. As for me, if it passes all the political hurdles I'll be one of the first to ride it on a regular basis. A lazy summer evening trip to Summerfest or a business trip to Chicago – I can’t wait!”
-- Gary Billington, vice president of client relations at Plunkett Raysich Architects LLP in Milwaukee.
“Public transit ridership is peaking across the United States - some of the best numbers in more than half a century, driven by the popularity of light rail, are being recorded and reported. Huge gains are being made in cities like Salt Lake City, where even in the reddest of red states, modern trains are moving happy, conservative, well-adjusted people around town.”
-- James Rowen, writer, former reporter and former mayoral staffer in both Madison and Milwaukee.
“Another policy avenue may be greater investment in transportation between the metro areas that would facilitate commuting flows. Both interstate highways and train transportation are now in service. The possible labor market advantages of easier and more dependable auto and passenger train travel might weigh significantly in the consideration of any future roadway/rail expansion and maintenance decisions. Combined efforts in applying for federal transportation grant monies to serve a large and more closely-integrated Chicago–Milwaukee market might also be effective - for both personal travel and for freight transportation including railroad.”
-- Bill Testa, vice president and director of regional programs in the economic research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
“It's well known that today, regions, and not cities, compete for everything from people, clients, businesses and talent to technology, research, entertainment venues and retail outlets. KRM will create a dynamic bi-state link joining metro Milwaukee together, and physically linking us to the mega metro Chicago economy, amenities and resources. The KRM link will help southeastern Wisconsin build a vibrant, globally competitive economic region. KRM will connect us to one of the nation's biggest economies, Chicago - and a premier commuter rail network, the Chicago Metra system.”
-- Rosemary Potter, executive director of Transit Now, a nonprofit organization that educates the community on transportation-related issues in southeastern Wisconsin.
According to Katsantonis, some of the main factors contributing to the growing popularity of passenger rail include unstable gasoline prices, increasingly unbearable lines and security procedures at airports, the gridlock-level congestion on our highways and the worsening environmental effects of greenhouse gasses and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.
All of these people seem genuinely convinced that the Milwaukee region would be better served with more passenger rail options. As someone who has both driven in a car and taken the AmTrak from Milwaukee to downtown Chicago in the past year, I can vouch for the choo-choo as the best way to go.
Of course, all of these arguments fly in the face of the collective dogma of local conservative radio talk show hosts. The mere mention of the words “light rail” causes their knees to jerk and their faces to redden. They may be in the minority, but they are a loud minority.
However, it’s time to deflate the rhetoric and have an honest discussion about the transportation needs - and solutions - of the region. Imagine the value for Milwaukee’s businesses – and their employees - if they have the effective infrastructure to penetrate a Chicagoland market of 9.5 million people.
Earlier this week, an experimental French train broke the new world record for rail speed by reaching 357 mph. Think about that. At such speed for a sustained trip, you could travel from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Louisville or St. Louis in less than one hour – and never leave the ground.
You could get to Chicago in about 10 minutes – without any traffic.
Just as President Dwight Eisenhower opened up this country to travel and commerce with the creation and construction of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s, it is time for a bold new endeavor such as a national high-speed rail system.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.