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The man who was recently tabbed as the first chairman of the new Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority would like to see Milwaukee connected with Kenosha and all points south by rail within two years.
Karl Ostby, president of Kenosha's Southport Bank, doesn't have to be convinced that such a rail connection can do much for a region. Growing up on the East Coast, rail travel was an every day part of life. And as a resident of Kenosha, which is currently the northern terminus of the Metra system that connects the city to Illinois, his family uses rail travel often.
Ostby said he wanted to become involved in the RTA and the effort to connect Milwaukee to Metra because it makes so much sense from an economic development standpoint.
Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Phil Evenson has estimated capital costs at about $17 million. That includes the cost to rebuild the existing rail bed -- left from when the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad ran service from Milwaukee to Kenosha -- as well as new rail equipment and cars.
Much of that cost is expected to be borne by federal and state sources. But even fervent rail advocates believe some additional financial support will be needed to operate the system -- above and beyond fare box revenues.
Some estimates place the extra needed funds as about $2 million annually throughout the Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee county region.
Ostby tells WisPolitics he believes the RTA will have to seek another form of revenue to make the system operate in the black. "Part of what RTA will be doing is trying to understand how other U.S. cities do it so we don't have to reinvent the wheel," Ostby said of the expense.
Ostby acknowledged the RTA's only current revenue source, from a rental car fee, will not be sufficient to cover operating costs. So he said the RTA may have to consider proposing some kind of fuel tax or sales tax to the state.
"Nobody wants to talk about taxes," he said. "But the benefits of this are so compelling that the cost of a tax subsidy shouldn't be difficult."
As a banker, Ostby sees the rail line as bringing an infusion of new capital and economic development to the region. "To me, I just think of how much more attractive the region will be," he said. "If you tried taking Metra service away from the Chicago suburbs, people would just go nuts."
Ostby said the RTA will also have to concentrate on providing other modes of transportation to serve rail riders once they arrive at their destinations.
Much of that will focus on bus service, he said.
While he would like to see rail service in place faster, Ostby said he believes 2008 is a realistic goal. "Some of the timing might be tough so it is not a lock," he said. "But I am also hoping that some of the costs might come in a little lower than
expected. That would help."
The Metra extension would offer a less expensive alternative to Amtrak, which currently is the only rail link from Milwaukee to Chicago but has fares two to three times higher than Metra.
Ostby pointed out that rail traffic to and from Kenosha has been so great that adjacent parking is virtually nonexistent and a new parking garage is being built to handle those who use the Metra system headed south.
Rosemary Potter, executive director of Transit Now, a group advocating the extension, has said Milwaukee is the 19th-largest city in the nation but the fifth largest without some form of rail transit. Potter has predicted a daily service of seven trains between Chicago and Milwaukee, with bus service connecting to the airports, sports facilities and downtowns.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has also is an outspoken supporter of the connection and is even seeking a rail link west from the downtown station to Miller Park.
The The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority Web page is sewisrta.org.
Dennis Shook is a contributor to WisPolitics.com.
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