Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Our Hatred of Trains is killing our local economy

Last Saturday, my wife had an epiphany. She has discovered the fact that I have been railing about (pun intended) that economies that do not adapt to peak oil by adopting sustainable transportation in the form of trains are losers. Up to yesterday, my daughters and her laughed at my obsession with rail transport and the history of our once strong southeast Wisconsin rail transportation network that has disappeared or fallen into branch line freight rail only decrepitude. My family’s first ride to downtown Chicago on Metra commuter rail changed that quickly.

Daughter and Friend at Harvard Illinois Metra Station.

A scene you won't see in Wisconsin, the state of Automobiles uber Alles.

More below the fold to see how trains can help our local economies in an age of expensive oil.

The story begins with one of my daughter’s favorite bands, the Plain White T’s. Originally, my wife and daughter, with a friend, planned to go hear them at Summerfest in Milwaukee. A quick check of the band’s schedule indicated that they were also playing at Taste of Chicago. Now, to go to Summerfest, it is a 50 mile drive from my house, which would require burning 5 gallons of gasoline which would cost $23 at todays prices (my wife’s car uses higher grade gasoline). Plus, parking would cost a minimum of $10. Additionally, there were the tickets to go see the band, which cost $16 apiece. That brings the out of pocket costs to nearly $80 or more, not including food. We looked at going to the Taste of Chicago instead. The Metra schedule worked out and the price to travel downtown worked out to a paltry $5. Metra weekend pass and the kids traveled free. Free trolleys run from the Metra station in downtown Chicago to the Taste of Chicago. Think if we had preserved the T, M, E, and RL interurbans, we could have gone to East Troy or Burlington, or even Lake Geneva (the original intent was to expand the electrified rail to that point) and done the same thing in Wisconsin.

Instead, my wife took the short 12 mile drive to Harvard, Illinois and hopped the train with my two daughters and one of my daughter’s friends. The icing on the cake was that the food coupons for the Taste of Chicago also paid admission to see the band. Total tab for 4 people for this event; $37.50, and that included an $5 cab fare back to the train station in Chicago and $1.50 to park at the Harvard train station. It also included plenty of food! My family was impressed at how well the train ran, the ride, and meeting different people. They want to go again!

Needless to say, our money and our time went to Chicago and not Milwaukee, thanks to the availability of the train. My wife and kids probably would have still gone to Chicago even if the admission to the concert was the same price, because who needs traffic and parking hassles, and $30 to be exported out of the region (with over 60 percent of that out of the country in the form of oil imports). The money would stay in the local economy if we had the trains that existed 50 years ago.

Now lets do a little exercise: Lets assume Wisconsin politicians and elites were a little more enlightened and a little less parochial, and a concerted effort was made to save the old Chicago and Northwestern line to Lake Geneva, and it’s beautiful historic train depot, razed in 1986 despite its placement on the national register of historic places, and Walworth County were part of the RTA. Lake Geneva would have a Metra station like Harvard, Illinois. We would be having people coming to and from Chicago by rail to Lake Geneva, and many of the hundreds of cars currently clogging the downtown would be left at home. The weekend tourists would be paying the $5 per person to come up by train. The average vehicle would cost $28-30 dollars in current fuel costs just for the fuel to go from Chicago to Lake Geneva, while a family of 4 with two young children would only pay $10 to ride the train. This would free up 18-20 dollars for that family to spend in the local economy rather than on fuel, or even make it possible for them to come in the first place. Assume 3 8-coach trains come up every weekend day and are 4/5 full. That would bring in 3000 people not driving, and with an average cost savings of 50% over driving, would conservatively free up about $5-10 per person to spend in the local economy (more for those traveling singly or couples) which would pump up to $30,000.00 into the local tourist economy each weekend day. Note that this does not include the well-paid jobs that would have stayed in the region for conductors, train engineers, and track construction and maintenance.

Almost everyone I talk to now in the region wants rails to be expanded and brought back. Short sighted decisions in the era of cheap gasoline and muscle cars do not need to be defended. The “freedom of the car” is now a financial albatross around our collective necks, as the above discussion proves, and the southeast Wisconsin and Walworth County transportation status quo is indefensible, no matter what the Waukesha papers, Randal O’Toole, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan or the other cheap labor conservative Republican politicians and transportation “consultants” that dominate our local politics say. That trains are wasteful is another myth that needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history along with the Ptolemaic astronomical model.