Double-Decker Freeway For Milwaukee?

Rising 40 feet high, it could be destructive to the Story Hill neighborhood.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Mar 5th, 2013 09:06 am
Location of the proposed double-deck freeway.  Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

Location of the proposed double-deck freeway. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

The East-West I-94 freeway in the area near Miller Park could be rebuilt into a 40-foot-high, double-decker freeway, according to officials with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The expanded freeway would extend from the Story Hill neighborhood to west of Hawley Rd, WisDOT officials told Story Hill residents last week.

WisDOT insists that no final decisions have been made and that everything from the number of lanes (either six or eight) to the way the double-decker would be built is still under study, but residents and elected officials attending the Story Hill Neighborhood Association meeting clearly were not convinced.

“The political decision will be to sacrifice this neighborhood for the commuters,” predicted Ald. Michael J. Murphy, who both represents and lives in Story Hill.

“I think you have to have a healthy skepticism of the DOT,” said State Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), who represents the area.

WisDOT is making plans to rebuild East-West I-94 from 70th St. to 25th St. Right now state law prohibits adding lanes adjacent to Wood National Cemetery, which the freeway cuts through. Gov. Scott Walker is proposing in his budget to repeal that ban.

All Up Design - Build New Freeway Entirely at Existing Ground Level and Above.

All Up Design – Build New Freeway Entirely at Existing Ground Level and Above.

WisDOT is proposing the double-decker to ensure that the rebuilt freeway does not encroach on Wood or other cemeteries adjacent to it. There are three ways to construct the double decker: suspend both eastbound and westbound lanes in the air, which means they could be as much as 40 feet high; build the lanes underground, which means they could be as much as 40 feet deep, or split the difference, building the freeway both above and below the existing road level. A double-deck freeway built under that option could rise about 25 feet above ground level, according to the WisDOT website.

“One thing to note is that it will cost more to build the freeway lower,” WisDOT says on the site. “The higher you go the less expensive the solution.”

Murphy, at the meeting, predicted WisDOT would reject the latter two options. “You’re not going to do it because of the money,” he said.

The neighborhood association already has gone on record with its views on an expanded freeway. “We are adamantly opposed to any double decking of lanes where the top level/deck is built up in the air,” the association wrote in a letter to WisDOT. “Building any freeway lanes from 10-40 feet above grade would add to the air, noise and light pollution in our neighborhood, and would literally route freeway traffic into front yards and living rooms of home owners on Story Parkway.”

A morning view of downtown from Story Hill. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

A morning view of downtown from Story Hill. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

WisDOT project manager David Nguyen told residents that sound impacts of the reconstructed freeway could result in the construction of sound walls along the top of the bluff that separates the neighborhood from the freeway. That would block Story Hill’s views of downtown, Miller Park, the VA and sunrises that exist now.  It also could mean the end to the natural area atop the bluff that serves to deaden some of the freeway noise.

Residents clearly were dissatisfied with WisDOT’s proposals and are worried about the potential impact on their property values and their quality of life.

Sound Wall. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

Sound wall along a north-south segment of I-94. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

“I’m really angry,” said one. “I have a vested interest.”

At the end of the meeting, Story Hill resident Steve Brachman asked the WisDOT representatives to cite one positive impact the proposed freeway project would have on the neighborhood.

They had none to suggest.

Gretchen Schuldt is a Story Hill resident and opposes the proposed expansion.

Double-Decker Freeway Drawings


51 thoughts on “Double-Decker Freeway For Milwaukee?”

  1. Jeff says:

    No, the double-decker is not a good option, for all of the reasons mentioned. But something needs to be done. That stretch of 94 is a bottleneck now; westbound in the mornings, traffic is generally slow — sometimes crawling — from the Marquette through the Stadium. It’s only going to get worse.

    The answer is to move some graves to the new Vets cemetery in Union Grove and make way for additional lanes. No one wants to broach this, but it has to be done. Right now, there are graves smack against the fence along the freeway; who wants to visit a grave in such a location? Move some graves, build in a buffer against the traffic and noise, and widen the freeway so traffic can flow.

  2. Robert Bauman says:

    Double decking is required because WisDOT wants to expand the freeway to 4 lanes in each direction. This expansion is not necessary based on recent studies of vehicle usage which indicates a general decline in vehicle usage and drastic slowing of the rate of growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). This is caused by two major trends: the aging population (senior citizens drive less) and the choice of many young people to live in dense urban areas and drive less relying on alternative transportation such as transit and bicycles. In addition, expanding the freeway between 25th street and 70th street will cost hundreds of Millions more than rebuilding the freeway in its current configuration–money WisDOT does not have. Expansion can be stopped, but it will take a massive effort by residents and elected officials. 40 years ago a coalition of citizens and state legislators stopped freeway development along the lake front and in several Milwaukee neighborhoods. It can be done again. It starts with Mayor Barrett, our state legislators and the common council. Now is the time to organize and advocate since the decision will be made over the next six to nine months.

  3. Joe says:

    So riddle me this: If the double decker is bad for the city (and the governor claims he isn’t anti-Milwaukee), then why isn’t rapid transit being discussed as an alternative to building this monstrosity? Bus rapid transit (which Walker used to support when he was county executive) would cost significantly less than a new expanded freeway and it would allow for commuters to get downtown just as quick as a light rail system. And people who would choose (note the use of the word choose Republicans) to use the system would be able to commute quicker thanks to good personal decisions not to drive. Also it would provide for added development on the west side, which is dearly needed. The statistics are there and it can happen. the streetcar is good for certain areas of the city, but BRT must be considered to get people in from the outlying areas.

  4. Robert Bauman says:

    In addition, widening does not reduce congestion. Study after study has shown that wider freeways induce travel because of a perceived reduction in congestion leading to more congestion in a few short years. This is not because of more vehicle usage but more vehicles using the freeway. It creates an endless cycle of demand for ever wider freeways without regard to cost or adverse neighborhood impacts. As former Mayor Norquist always said: widening freeways to reduce congestion is like loosening one’s belt to reduce obesity.

  5. Joel says:

    I believe the biggest reason there is slow traffic on I-94 during certain times of the day is simply due to certain or all interchanges that are substandard including left-hand entrance/exit ramps. This freeway can do fine if it remained 3 lanes in each direction but if the interchanges were reconstructed.

  6. Frank says:

    How much does a stopwatch and screwdriver cost? Because that is all you will need to synchronize traffic lights. I can tell you doing that would cost a lot less than a double decker freeway. I truly believe our politicians have gone mad.


  7. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Good lord. You know, as far as freeways go, I actually prefer double decker with underground portions because it’ll lessen the footprint of the thing, but as other commenters have stated, this is utterly un-needed.

    Get the god-forsaken KRM rail on track and extend it out to Pewaukee or West Bend and you’ll have a cheaper solution that’ll last far longer.

  8. Patty PT says:

    Freeway reconstruction of any type without discussion of a corresponding mass transit solution is a complete waste of our time and money.

  9. Alex says:

    Adding additional lanes, whether by double-decking or expanding outward, will only add more traffic. In the short term it may open things up, but a few years after the new lanes are opened the congestion will be right back to where it is today. Any expansion of this freeway is a gargantuan waste of money and only serves to subsidize fast commutes from those that live outside of Milwaukee. I don’t blame the folks in these neighborhoods one bit for fighting this mess.

  10. chris byhre says:

    Looks like you guys got the whole freeway congestion issue solved in 8 posts. Impressive. Everything needs to be looked at to solve the transportation needs of the region. However, the current system is inadequate and more lanes would absolutely help. People are not going to park their cars and hop on a bus day in and day out. A JS article just the other day pointed out that almost as many people drive FROM Milwaukee to the Western burbs for work as those who drive INTO the city for work. What happens when a shiny new train or bus drops you off in the middle of Pewaukee? How do you get from the train or bus depot, and all of the development around it that you claim will happen, to your destination? Once again the anti road people tend to forget that roads are used to haul goods that are used by everyone, even people who ride buses.

  11. Joe says:

    Chris, they will. Gas isn’t going to go down. No matter what you think. And if people still choose to drive and spend gobs of cash on gas, then it’s the matter of them refusing to take personal responsibility. As far as the western burbs in Waukesha County, people can choose to drive or could take transit. Most businesses out there that actually employ people for livable wages are located in office or business parks. Put a stop near there. Mad you got to walk a block or two? Well there’s an obesity epidemic in the country. And if you do build dedicated transit out there the developers will follow and located their businesses near transit. This has been proven time and time again. Repave the road and try the bus once. You might be pleasantly surprised to see how convenient it is and the amount of extra cash you have in your wallet at the end of the week.

  12. Chris Byhre says:

    Joe, like it or not we live in a culture where people want their cars. I am well aware that gas has more than doubled under Obama and is likely to not go down significantly. SO, if people want convenience they are not responsible? Enough of your righteousness. You would need a lot more then one stop also. The more stops, the less convenience. There are hundreds and hundreds of businesses spread out over a vast array of business parks in many different communities. Who said anyone was mad? I just said people want their cars and your ‘solutions’ won’t appeal to most people. You are so brilliant and responsible you are going to solve obesity, traffic congestion, and poverty (by saving money on the bus!). You should take a break and rest on your laurels Joe, that is a lot for one man to accomplish in one day.

  13. Chris says:

    Someday Milwaukee will join the advanced world and build a transportation network that links cars, trains, brt, trams, busses, bikes, and pedestrians — giving people many good options for getting around. Sadly, that’s a long long ways off. In the meantime, we’ll continue to lose young educated people to places that already have, or are developing these things.

  14. cgleiss says:

    Understanding the need to invest in infrastructure and right-size our transportation network, my question is quickly framed for me. Why are we expanding a freeway when our population in the region is stable/shrinking? Why should more of Milwaukee be dug under for a road to serve people who don’t want to be here and are only interested in getting in and out as quickly as possible?

  15. Patty PT says:

    Many people say “we want our cars!” Well, we want our cars because we don’t have any other fast options. If I had alternatives, I’d use them!

  16. Dave K. says:

    Can we make it one lane wide and 8 decks high? That would be COOOOOOL!!! And think of all the cost overruns! It would make Zenith Tech and Walker’s other donors drool!

  17. chris byhre says:

    Why can’t you anti road people engage in an intelligent discussion about this topic? People do not move to cities that have shiny new trains. They move where there are jobs, excellent schools (rules MKE out), vibrant arts and entertainment scenes, etc. The reason we might need to add onto the freeway would be to add efficiency to our most popular and most needed method of transporting goods and people from one point to another. Dave K, the ‘cool’ factor and cost overruns are most associated with assorted trains, trams and trolleys. The freeway expansion would be about decreasing congestion and making it easier to move people and products through the region. Now THAT would be cool.

  18. cgeiss says:

    chris byhre – it isn’t that I’m against roads. In fact, it is the contrary. I am all for roads as part of a balanced transportation system that supports people of all ages and income levels and provides choices and options for how we move through the city.

    Regarding speaking intelligently about the subject, it should be noted that the people moving to the city don’t actually need the freeways because they are using the street and transit network within the city to move around. It is the folks in Waukesha, Slinger, etc. who are trying to get in and out of Milwaukee who need the freeway. Moving goods through Milwaukee doesn’t do the city any good. Moving people and goods within the city does, in fact, do the city good. If you think wider freeways helps to solve congestion, try visiting LA. Congestion is not a curable ill, it is an outcome of having no other choice.

  19. Frank says:

    To all the people supporting this idea… take a ride through Atlanta sometime. That city has 8 lanes in each direction, but it is still bumper to bumper.

  20. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Chris – “under Obama” ? Did you really say that?

    I respect that you’re being pragmatic about American’s reluctance to do anything but drive but implying that Obama has something to do with higher gas prices is profoundly irresponsible and false. No president has control over gas prices. To make your statement even more bizarre, Obama has opened up more drilling than any president in recent times. Gas is NEVER going to be cheap again no matter what we do. Please stop assuming that.

  21. chris byhre says:

    I did say it. I used it as a point of reference. I could have easily said in the last 4 years but I enjoy getting lefties fired up. We all know that nothing is his fault. I never have assumed gas would be cheap so I am not sure why you felt the need to say it and put it in all caps. Goods do not just pass through Milwaukee. We still produce things in this city and they need to be shipped out of the city to the end user. Not everything is just passing through. Also, as I stated earlier and you would be wise to note, almost half of all people driving to work in the morning on I-94 are heading out of Milwaukee to their jobs. That would be Milwaukee residents in need of the freeway to get to work. I have been to LA and your comparison is poor. First of all there are over 10,000,000. people in Los Angeles County alone. They also have almost 100 miles of subway and will soon go over 100 stations yet they still have congested roads. How many of the items in your home were delivered via light rail, tram or trolley? You need to realize that they are vital for commerce.

  22. cgleiss says:

    I like the ‘vital for commerce’ note, because it is true that goods and services have to come in and out of the city. It is also important to note that the majority of truck traffic, including all hazardous materials, goes around MKE on 894, and unless I am mistaken, trucks currently seem to get in and out of the City just fine. Building a superhighway through the city on 94 is unnecessary to provide this access. And again, I see the highway as a part of the transportation system, not the only part of that system. My point about LA is that you can never build yourself out of congestion. That is a lie continually retold by our roadbuilding factions. In a city, congestion is a part of life. That is why the vital thing is to have a robust system providing options, rather than banking on one solution. Just like your retirement account, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

  23. Tom says:

    Chris, gasoline today is cheaper than it’s top under G. W. Bush ($4.12/gal in July, 2008).

    (click on “5 Years” right above the graph)

  24. Chris Byhre says:

    Tom, the day Obama was sworn in (I am sure many of you are still finding confetti around the house) gas was $1.90 per gallon. If you own a car, or know of a Conservative who owns one, get to a gas station and tell me what you paid. Besides, this is about roads and our need to continue to improve and in some cases expand them to meet demand. I would enjoy a discussion about Obama’s failures but that will have to wait for another thread and a left leaning site like this would never broach that subject.

  25. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Chris, I have no problem with criticism of Obama. I’m very middle of the road, politically speaking. But turning gas prices into a political issue is one thing that will always get my goat. When people say “bah! Obama! high gas prices!” it’s just as retarded as saying “bah! Bush! oil industry, high gas prices!” … Morons on both the right and left have been saying that for years and both parties have stupidly gone along with it knowing that some people are dumb enough to vote for a party that claims it will magically lower gas prices….

    I long for the day when a politician has the balls to not only admit high prices are here to stay but to raise the gas tax to pay for our infrastructure – including transit. Sadly, however, I’m not holding my breath.

  26. Stephanie says:

    I am originally from Minnesota. I lived in the suburbs and commuted to Minneapolis by bus for 3 years. It was the best. I lived in Eden Prairie where there was a dedicated transit center where people parked their cars all day and took the bus in a parking ramp. It was MUCH faster and more pleasant than driving. Once at the transit centers, or downtown there were connecting lines that took you where you needed to go. I would bet money that over 3000 people took those buses every morning with me between 6am and 8am from that station.

    Of course everyone wants their cars for running errands, taking vacations, and hauling stuff, but it has been my experience that for commuting purposes, most people would rather sit back and enjoy the ride rather than fight traffic. Milwaukee is at a turning point right now. We can either do things the way they have always been done… hasn’t worked out the best, Milwaukee is considered the most segregated city in the United States and the 14th worst city to live in… or we can do things a different way and invest in projects that have a long lifespan and are better for everyone.

  27. Chris Byhre says:

    Stephanie, I am thrilled that you enjoyed your bus experience in MN. Your experience was in a metro area almost double the size of Milwaukee. In addition to having more then 1.6 million more residents than the Milwaukee Metro area, the Twin Cities have MUCH worse traffic. Your generalizations do not make for a compelling argument. You really think you can speak for most people when you say they would prefer to sit on a bus rather then drive their own car? If this is the case, why don’t more people do it? Did everyone just miss the bus? Speaking of missing the bus, what does segregation and some random ranking of Milwaukee’s livibility have to do with taking the bus? How are your projects that you want us to invest in better for everyone? I can tell you right now it would not be better for me. Are you telling me that you know more about my needs and what is better for me then I do? Take a bus back to the cities and ride the bus all day if that makes you happy. Unlike you, I won’t assume I know what is best for you and will leave that for you to determine.

  28. Tom says:

    Chris Byhre, it makes sense to subsidize transit because it reduces the need for very expensive highways. In addition to saving money, transit use also improves air quality, reduces traffic deaths, and helps the economy by giving poor and disabled people more employment options.

    The passenger loads Stephanie reported (3,000 people in 2 hours) is roughly the real-world maximum of what one lane of interstate highway can handle–a vehicle every 2-3 seconds.

    By my calculations, one vehicle every 2.64 seconds carrying an average of 1.1 people (about what the Census Bureau reported for Milwaukee in 2000–see below), comes to exactly 1,500 people/hour.

    The 2000 Census (most recent data I could find) shows that in (metro) Milwaukee, 80.1% of workers drove to work alone, and another 9.9% carpooled. (Most of the rest took the bus or walked.) Although the Census data doesn’t provide the average carpool size, it really doesn’t matter much; see next paragraph.

    Using that data, if the average Milwaukee carpool had 3 people (2 plus the driver), the average vehicle load (including solo drivers) was 1.079 people, if carpools averaged 5 people (and they didn’t), average vehicle load would be 1.096, and even if all carpools used 19-passenger vans (at 18 passengers plus the driver, these are the largest possible carpool vehicles) and if they all ran 100% full, the average vehicle load would still be only 1.116 people.


    As to whether the Twin Cities are much bigger than Milwaukee…
    Most of the population difference arises from Lake Michigan which prevents Milwaukee from having any real eastern suburbs (whereas Minneapolis/St Paul stretches out in all 4 directions).

    Population density is more relevant than absolute head counts, and Milwaukee’s population density is comparable to Minneapolis/St Paul’s (in central cities, central counties, and multi-county metropolitan areas).

  29. Chris Byhre says:

    Tom, we do subsidize transit currently so I am not sure why you bring that up. I do not put any credibility into Stephanie’s estimation on bus ridership nor her opinion that most people prefer the bus. Putting more money into transit does not save money in any way. You are adding costs not reducing them. As an example locally, tell me how the downtown trolley is going to save money. It is going to cost around $70 million to build and another $40-$60 million to relocate utilities etc (which the taxpayers will pay for). Where are the cost savings? How would the not so high speed rail connection between Milwaukee and Madison have saved money? It was going to cost close to a billion dollars and even with subsidized fares, it would have run at a loss and not moved a significant amount of the traffic off I-94. As for density of cities and traffic, drive around the Twin Cities for a week during rush hour and then do the same here in Milwaukee and tell me of your experience. Traffic in that progressive city with light rail and really cool, packed buses full of friendly people who are excited to be on the bus, is worse then here in Milwaukee.

  30. tom says:

    Chris, Stephanie never said most people prefer the bus. She said SHE preferred it and that 3,000 people liked it enough to ride (which doesn’t mean they neccessarily “prefer” it). Some people might ride it to save money, to make better use of their time (reading, texting, sleeping, etc), and some might not have a car available (2 people in a one-car household, for example).

    I suspect her estimate of 3,000 users from her particular bus station may be a little high–perhaps 1,500-2,000 might be more accurate. The main Eden Prairie bus station (“Southwest Station”) has a 1000-car parking garage and needs an overflow lot, too. Additional people are dropped off by a spouse while others walk to buses from nearby apartment complexes. All told, there are 27 runs from that one station to Minneapolis within a 2-hour period (6:40 am thru 8:40), each with seating for about 70 passengers–about 1,750 total seats from that station alone. (I assume they use 60-foot buses–50% longer than most MCTS buses.)

    Two nearby bus stations have 400 parking spaces each, and a fourth facility, “East Creek,” (with over 700 spaces) will open this summer. That’s over 2,500 parking spaces–pretty much the 3,000 number Stephanie claimed.

    Because of these express buses (running at least every 5 minutes for about 2 hours) from Eden Prairie and nearby suburbs totaling around 2,000 daily riders (each way), Minneapolis gets away needing one fewer expressway lane (each way), saving perhaps $1 billion in construction costs up front (and again every 30-50 years) plus the cost of maintaining the extra two lanes.

    As to why Minneapolis traffic is so much worse, look at a map. Milwaukee had its main roads laid out by The Northwest Ordinance, a 1787 act of The Congress of the Confederation (the one-chamber body that preceded today’s House and Senate because it sat BEFORE the Constitution was written).

    The NW Ordinance provided for a grid of major NS and EW roads every mile. Examples of these roads are Silver Spring, Hampton, Capitol, Sherman Blvd, 60th St, 76th St, etc. Because of the NW Ordinance, Milwaukee has many alternatives to freeways. For example, instead of I-94, you could take North Ave, Blue Mound or Greenfield. There is simply nothing comparable in much of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The NW Ordinance ended at the Mississippi River and most of the Twin Cities is west of the Mississippi.

    I lived in Roseville, MN (a St Paul Suburb east of the Mississippi) after college. The roads in Roseville resembled Wisconsin’s with a major road (called County Road A, Road B, Road C, etc) every mile. All that pretty much ends at the Mississippi. On top of that, many major Twin City roads make 90 degree turns near the River. For example, University Avenue, perhaps St Paul’s main EW local road makes a full right turn inside Minneapolis and begins running due NS. Another example is Hennepin Ave, a main NS road in South Minneapolis that turns due EW just north of downtown.

    In short Minneapolis traffic is so bad because there is no overriding street grid across the metro area.

    I mentioned transit subsidies to answer your question to Stephanie “How are your projects that you want us to invest in better for everyone?”.

    Almost all transportation is subsidized. Most Wisconsin roads (other than Wisconsin, US, or Interstate highways) are funded almost totally from property taxes. The federal highway trust fund has been broke for years, bailed out by periodic subsidies voted by Congress (from general funds–perhaps borrowed from China) totaling $34.5 billion between 2008 and early 2012. (I don’t have the numbers for the period after that, but I believe it burns through about $10 billion/year in outright subsidy, not counting billions of additional Stimulus subsidy.)

    On top of that, Wisconsin is borrowing $765 million this biennium alone to prop up (subsidize) the State highway fund.

    Yes, the Madison train would have needed about $7 million/year in subsidy–an amount similar to what Wisconsin and Illinois ALREADY pay to subsidize the Chicago-Milwaukee train–a train that even Scott Walker supports. Why is it wrong to ask upstaters to subsidize a Chicago-Madison train but OK to ask the same people to subsidize a shorter version of the SAME train that only goes as far as Milwaukee? Scott Walker is now planning to INCREASE that Chicago-Milwaukee train subsidy to support a 43% increase in train service (increasing to 10 trains/day instead of today’s 7).

    Keep in mind that just after killing the Madison-Chicago train, the State started moving toward spending about $1 billion widening I-90 between Chicago and Madison. The State is saving $7 million/year from not subsidizing the Madison train but is instead planning to spend $1 billion to widen the parallel highway–a road which is under capacity over 90% of the time.

  31. Chris Byhre says:

    Tom, not that it matters much but Stephanie actually said “…most people would rather sit back and enjoy the ride rather then fight traffic”, so you are incorrect on that. Your cost estimates and ridership estimates are pure conjecture so there is nothing there to debate. I know roads are subsidized, as do most people. I take issue with people like Stephanie and many others who think like her, saying that she knows what is best for everyone. That must be wonderful to have that kind of knowledge and power. You are heading down the wrong track if you want to try and compare the Hiawatha Milwaukee-Chicago route with the proposed Milwaukee-Madison addition. Some rail actually works, like the Hiawatha and the Empire Builder to name a few. It just did not make sense on any level to run that train between Milwaukee and Madison. You also conveniently fail to mention the nearly one billion dollars it would have cost to build this train, you simply mention the 7 million dollars in annual operating subsidies after it is built. So Scott Walker supports the Hiawatha…so do I. Many Conservatives support some form of rail. What is your point? You are great with citing sources but your timeline on the expansion of I-90 is a bit off. Planning for that started under Governor Doyle well before the half fast train was smartly derailed. Our new Senator and champion of all people Tammy Baldwin has also warmly embraced this expansion of I-90. Additionally, this thread started as a conversation about a freeway in SE Wisconsin, why would you bring up a freeway expansion plan almost 100 miles from here?

  32. Robert R. says:

    It’s convenient that you call it a Madison to Milwaukee train. Chicago always was the big draw/destination for that route. Every analysis that leaves Chicago out of the equation, is a flawed one.

    And saying the Empire Builder works is preposterous. Those long routes are what is killing Amtrak’s budget. Good for tourism, sure, but budget busters all the same. Amtrak’s profitable routes are all the short and medium distance commuter routes to major population centers, like Chicago.

    You want to put Amtrak on the path to profit, end the long distance routes. Or spin them off to the states that are willing to subsidize them.

  33. Robert R. says:

    It’s convenient that you call it a Madison to Milwaukee train. Chicago always was the big draw/destination for that route. Every analysis that leaves Chicago out of the equation, is a flawed one.

    And saying the Empire Builder works is preposterous. Those long routes are what is killing Amtrak’s budget. Good for tourism, sure, but budget busters all the same. Amtrak’s profitable routes are all the short and medium distance commuter routes to major population centers, like Chicago.

    You want to put Amtrak on the path to profit, end the long distance routes. Or spin them off to the states that are willing to subsidize them. Frankly, those are two different businesses anyway. One of them is designed for tourism and one is designed for commuters and the perception of Amtrak would look a lot different if the losses generated by the tourism business weren’t lumped in with the profits from the commuter business.

  34. Chris Byhre says:

    I called it a train between Milwaukee and Madison because that is where they wanted to spend almost a billion dollars to upgrade the track. There was no proposal to speed up the trains between Milwaukee and Chicago that was killed. So it is more then convenient, it is factual as well. I mistakenly referred to the Empire Builder route when I meant to refer to the Acela Express that runs from Boston to NYC to Washington DC. That was an error on my part. I agree with you with regard to the longer routes.

  35. cgleiss says:

    It is pretty amazing that the dispute over rails and highways only highlights the variety of the system. Trying to compare the systems in an effort to identify one as the winner and one as the loser is exactly what it seems Chris Byhre is warning against. The discussion should be about providing the best transportation network possible that works for everyone. This ensures that Chris can drive like he wants to, Stephanie can ride a bus like she wants to, and I can ride a train between Milwaukee and Madison like I want to.

    Sticker shock over the price of these things is always an easy rallying cry, but is unuseful. A billion dollars to build a system that will move people all the way between Madison and Milwaukee is portrayed as wasteful while the same amount of money to build an intersection for two highways (43 and 94) is portrayed as responsible. This comparison is useless and fails to take into account the inefficiencies of the systems. The highway is significantly more costly to build and maintain than a rail line, but since it is an existing condition in most people’s mind, it is expected that we will continue to pay for it.

    I think it is in the city, state and region’s best interest to continue to evaluate how their budgets can be most efficiently spent to accomplish the task at hand. Rather than continuing to cast names on different transportation options, we need to continue the discussion of improving the overall system instead of the current approach of only building roads.

    And as it relates to Amtrak – I think the approach cutting the unprofitable lines misses the point of creating a strong and improved transportation network. The goal of infrastructure such as roads and rails isn’t to make money off of each street or line but instead to provide a framework for the surrounding development that relies on these mobility options. Amtrak’s long haul routes serve a lot of the country where no other transportation options exist. As a frequent long haul user on the California Zephyr, there really aren’t that many tourists. Instead, it is mostly just individuals and families travelling to meet their needs.

    Thanks for all the discussion. I hope the conversation can continue to be elevated toward the idea of creating a system that works for everyone. No one solution will get the job done.

  36. Robert R. says:

    It’s not factual to omit Chicago from the route, because a lot of the traffic using the Madison to Milwaukee link would have continued on to Chicago, and vice versa. Or maybe only went as far as GMIA. It’s misconstruing the proposed plan as a Milwaukee to Madison train, when the ridership estimates were largely based on Chicago and GMIA as source/destination. I’d argue it was a Madison / GMIA plan and Madison / Chicago plan more than it was a Madison / Milwaukee plan.

    Focussing on the track, not the passengers, is missing the forest for the trees when looking at a transportation system. Especially when Chicago is a city where mass transit makes a ton of sense.

  37. Tom says:

    Chris, the track upgrade between Madison and Milwaukee would not have cost “almost a billion dollars”; it would have been about half that.

    The trackwork (including a very advanced signal system required for 110 mph operation) was pegged at $485 million. Another $183 million was allocated for stations, the maintenance facility, physical trains (including high-speed locomotives), and something called “Environmental Commitments” (worth $23.4 million, but I have no idea what it was). Finally, another $135.4 million was coming from Washington to cover any overruns.

    Total cost was $803 million, but less than 0.5 billion was for trackwork.

    I did not mention the one-time cost of building the Madison train extension because it would not have been a State expense and because it was not a recurring cost. By contrast, highway construction IS a recurring cost: every 30-50 years you must rip out the old highway and replace it at a higher cost than the original construction. Track must also be rebuilt eventually, but the costs are MUCH lower.

    The cost of rebuilding 4-lane rural interstate to 6 lanes in Wisconsin was about $11 million a mile in 2011.


    The cost of re-building a mile of Wisconsin single-track railroad in 2010 was $200,000. I assume that re-building a double track line (with roughly the capacity of 4-6 lanes of interstate highway) would be double that, or $400,000 per mile–LESS than 4% of the cost of rebuilding a 6-lane highway.


    The $803 million Madison train extension included several improvements to the existing Milwaukee-Chicago trains. The $7 million annual subsidy (which probably would have been partly paid by Illinois) would include the extra cost of increasing the number of Chicago-Milwaukee trains by 43% (from 7 to 10 daily round trips). It would have covered improvements at the GMIA and downtown train stations. It would have bought new high-speed locomotives that would have been also used on Chicago-Milwaukee trains. It would have built a crossover switch south of Milwaukee that Amtrak felt would have improved Hiawatha on-time reliability. It provided for light-weight Talgo trains that would require less fuel, reducing operating costs.

    Had the Madison train extension been built, there would be very little additional expense to upgrade part of the Chicago-Milwaukee track (the track not shared with Metra commuter trains) to 110 mph. The high-speed cars and locomotives would all be in place, and even half of the advanced signalling (the part onboard the trains) would be there.

  38. Tom says:

    Chris, I think too much emphasis is placed on speeding up the trains between Milwaukee and Chicago. Of the 86 miles on that route, only the portion between Mitchell Field and Roundout, Ill (where the commuter trains come in) could be sped up–about 46 miles.

    Even if you ignore the fact that trains must slow down to stop at Sturtevant, and you assume all 46 miles could be upgraded from 79 mph (the current top speed) to 110 mph, the total time saving would be under 10 minutes. Is cutting the trip from 90 minutes to 80 or 81 worth spending tens or hundreds of millions?

    The Madison extension included a proposed timetable which showed 10 daily Milwaukee-Chicago roundtrips, with the first 3 southbound trains leaving Milwaukee at 6:15, 7:12, and 8:00 am. Spacing trains less than one hour apart like this would, in my opinion, improve service more than cutting 10 minutes off the running times but leaving trains spaced about two hours apart.

    Wisconsin could have had this service improvement (plus the trains to Madison) for at most $7 million/year and no state capital expense. The City of Madison and Dane County were willing to share the operating subsidy, but then-Gov-elect Walker would not even return their phone calls.

  39. Robert R. says:

    Then-Gov-elect Walker was cynically trying to cut a deal where he could divert some of that funding for roads, instead of having to go on a massive bonding spree, and Doyle/Obama took the action that would hurt Wisconsin/Walker most.

    We’re still going to have to pay Talgo for the trains eventually, we’re still going to have to do the train shed ADA improvements (and put a roof on the train loading area that doesn’t leak) for around $20 million, and the State is still going to have to fix its freight rail tracks between Watertown and Madison, probably running over $30 million. Heck, eventually the State is going to have to upgrade railroad crossings to modern safety standards between Milwaukee and Madison. And instead of the Feds paying for that, the money is going to come out of the State’s transportation fund. Considering all the bonding we’re likely to incur, that money is going to come at interest and is hurting the State’s efforts to push forward with the Hoan, Zoo, and I-39/90.

  40. Chris Byhre says:

    Robert, I was not focused solely on the track. I have stated before and state here again, the new, smaller, no bid contracted Talgo trains, would not have moved a significant amount of traffic off I-94. Yes, options are great, but you can’t always get what you want. It would not make sense to spend over $800 million taxpayer dollars on a train that would at the very most, take 600 cars a day off I-94. Also, train lovers never like to talk about what else travels on roads, most of our essential items that we use every single day. Tom, great breakdown of the expenses. As far as I can tell, they are all related to the train. I obviously was not referring simply just to the steel tracks they laid down when I made my comment, but all of the costs associated with the project. You say things like “very little additional expense to upgrade the Chicago-Milwaukee track to 110 mph.” How much is very little? Also, the train from MKE to Madison was only going to top out at 79 mph. It would have taken more $ to make it faster. You are right Robert, Chicago is a city where mass transit makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately for your argument, we are talking about Milwaukee and Madison. The entire state of WI has less people then the Chicagoland area so how does that factor into your point?

  41. Tom says:

    Chris, the main purpose of the Madison extension was to provide Chicago-Madison train service, not Madison-Milwaukee. The Madison-Chicago trains were to be routed through Milwaukee for three reasons:

    – It would be cheaper to build because the Watertown-Chicago track already permitted 79 mph (although the Milwaukee-Watertown portion would have been expanded to double-track to permit simultaneous two-way operations and both tracks would have been upgraded to 110 mph).

    – It would help ensure Milwaukee’s inclusion on the eventual Chicago-Minneapolis HSR. If direct (shorter and faster) Madison-Chicago HSR track existed, some or all Chicago-Minneapolis HSR service might bypass Milwaukee completely (especially if Madison continues on its current trend of becoming Wisconsin’s largest city later this century)

    – It would feed traffic onto the existing Chicago-Milwaukee trains making them financially stronger (lower subsidy than today) while increasing the total number of daily Chicago-Milwaukee trains (more choices improves service for Milwaukee passengers)

    Of course, the Madison train would not take much traffic off I-94 because I-90 (not I-94) is the main Madison-Chicago highway.

    The Madison-Milwaukee train would NOT have been limited to 79 mph. It was a two-phase project (all covered by the single federal grant). The first phase would have opened in January, 2013 with a 79 mph limit.

    The second phase would wait for new high-speed locomotives and the new signaling system. It would have been in place by late 2015/early 2016 and would have topped off at 110 mph.

    But 110 mph is a distraction. Today, the State-owned track between Madison and Watertown is so bad its freight trains are limited to 10 mph. Increasing that from 10 mph to 79 mph would save MUCH more time than a further increase from 79 mph to 110.

    As to your statement that “train lovers never like to talk about what else travels on roads, most of our essential items that we use every single day,” trains actually carry more ton-miles of inter-city cargo than trucks.

    That’s a good thing because rail is more fuel-efficient than trucks. Diesel trains can move a ton of freight nearly 450 miles on a gallon of fuel, and they do it without government subsidies. And electric trains, like Amtrak uses between Boston and Washington (and which are common in Europe) don’t burn any petroleum at all.

    Even new automobiles are shipped to the Chicago-Milwaukee area by rail; only the last few miles go by truck.

    Besides, trucks can travel just fine on 4-lane roads; the speed limits are no higher on 6- or 8-lane highways, and nobody is advocating eliminating interstate highways.

  42. Robert R. says:

    By your “logic” Chris, we should all oppose spending hundreds of millions on this double decker / widening plan because it only connects Hawley Road to 35th Street. That’s the “logic” you use on the Madison-Milwaukee extension. The project was a Madison to Chicago train, and trying to pretend otherwise is pretzel logic. You look at a transportation system as a whole or you’re cherrypicking. And you are.

    And, no, to knock down the straw man you’re trying to set up, the elimination of freeways was never part of the plan, and never proposed by more than the radical fringe.

  43. chris byhre says:

    Robert, you were so concerned about patronizing me with your quotes around the word logic that you somehow got derailed in your argument. I never, ever said that anyone proposed eliminating freeways. Where did that come from? Some train lovers blog that you also write to? I know that rail is used to haul millions of tons of cargo daily. It can be a really efficient system for hauling items. You still need roads to get the goods to their final destination however. I am against inefficent use of money (that we do not have) that would appease a miniscule minority. The better the roads, the more efficient the transportation is, the lower the costs are. Also, any comparisons to Europe are illogical and last I checked electricity that powers some trains has to be generated somehow. Power plants often run on fossil fuels. Ok Ok I get it, you guys want the Chicago to Madison route figured into this. Fine, there still is not a great demand and this trip can be driven much faster then your beloved train could run it. Once you get to Chicago or the burgeoning metropolis of Madison you still need to get to your final destination(s).

  44. Robert R. says:

    I never said you made that argument either, I preempted the straw man that was coming.

    And, at least you admit it was a Chicago to Madison (with stops in between) train, which is the honest assessment of the project. I get there were pros and cons to the project, but there was never an honest debate about the project (and about the costs of turning down the Federal money since contracts had already been signed, the train shed ADA work would still have to be performed, and State owned freight tracks still needed repairs, and that money was either coming out of the Feds or the State’s transportation fund. Walker chose for it to come from the State’s fund, which impacts the money available for roads.)

    BTW, the engineers who performed the ROI calculation disagree that there was no demand.

    But, I’ll agree that it’s too late now to rehash that. It’s done. And perhaps part of the problem was biting off too much in one gulp. Given the Hiawatha’s increased ridership, I do think that there is room for some extension of the line. Maybe not all the way out to Madison, but it would probably cost a fraction of the project to extend the line out to western Milwaukee County / eastern Waukesha County and take advantage of Chicago on the other end, while bypassing several choke points such as I-94 by Miller Park and the several interchanges. There’s little doubt that the Hiawatha is going to continue, and continue to grow, and a more gradual and natural growth of the areas serviced may make sense, while taking advantage of the engineering already performed.

  45. Tom says:

    Chris, the reason for mentioning electric trains is that electricity can come from so many different sources: hydro, solar, wind (Calgary, Alberta powers its entire light rail system using 100% wind-generated electricity), nuclear, coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Automobiles, trucks, and most buses can only use natural gas or petroleum.

    As for your claim that driving would be faster than the Madison train, look at the bus schedules. Privately-owned and operated Van Galder Bus Lines runs from Madison to downtown Chicago along I-90. Their schedule allows as much as 4.5 hours (and never less than 3 hours) for a one-way Madison-Chicago trip; EVERY train would take less than 3 hours (even with 7 intermediate stops).

    You say “Once you get to Chicago … you still need to get to your final destination(s).” True, but the same thing applies to today’s Milwaukee-Chicago train (which you do support). If Milwaukee-to-Chicago passengers can somehow reach their final destination, the same is true for Madison-Chicago travelers. As for people arriving in Madison, Madison has a great bus system (better than Milwaukee’s in some ways) and ample taxicabs.

    I really do not understand how a rational person can support subsidizing today’s Milwaukee-Chicago train, but oppose extending that same train so it runs Madison-Chicago.

    Is it a belief that Madison isn’t big enough? Fifty years ago, Madison was 17% as large as Milwaukee; today it is 40% as big and growing MUCH faster. How many more decades before Madison becomes the dominant city?

    Is it a belief that the existing train only works because it is mostly daily commuters from Milwaukee (and Madison is too far for daily commuting)? Think again, 80% of weekday Hiawatha passengers are NOT daily commuters.

    Is it selfishness (subsidizing MY train is OK but not anybody else’s)?

    Is there some magic annual passenger count between 420,000 (the Madison projections) and 790,000 (the actual Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha number in 2010, when this battle played out)? And why didn’t the same people oppose subsidizing the Chicago-Milwaukee train just 11 years ago (in 2002) when it carried even fewer people: under 400,000?

  46. Chris Byhre says:

    Robert, so you preempted an argument that no rational person would make? Because I have facts, logic and plain old common sense on my side I will never have to resort to making outlandish statements that you will have to refute BEFORE I ever make them. When you know what you are talking about in a discussion, no such hyperbole is needed. I said Chicago to Madison just to throw you a bone and to still show you that the numbers do not work, there are not enough people to support such an expenditure. Engineers did an ROI study on this train and claimed it made economic sense? OK..good enough for me. I can cite as many or more studies that would prove it a boondoggle. Tom, that is great for Calgary..I am happy that they use wind power…whoopee..fantastic. Would that be the norm for more bus and rapid transit systems or are you cherry picking? Let’s look at the cost of wind and solar power vs fossil fuels. Who wants to take the bus? Not me. Why are you talking about the Van Galder bus company? Based on what you stated, they are slow and inefficient, sounds like their target consumer would be a person who likes trains. The Chicago-Milwaukee train handles a lot of traffic and makes some sense. You actually call it MY train?? I couldn’t care less if that route went by the boards tomorrow it makes no difference to me. I get it, you think Madison is going to continue to grow and grow. Madison is not big enough, most likely will never be big enough, and will not merit the expenditure you want on this shiny new train.

  47. Tom says:

    Chris, I mentioned Van Galder because they are by far the largest bus service connecting Madison and Chicago (20-30 daily one-way trips) and because all their runs use I-90, the most direct route between Madison and Chicago. Their trip times are a good proxy for real-world driving times on I-90 (especially the way trip times balloon at rush hours).

    The Chicago-Milwaukee train is needed because tolls & parking are expensive and because Chicago traffic is bad. That is EXACTLY why a Madison train would work. Madisonians driving to Chicago face HIGHER tolls, the SAME high parking rates, and EVEN WORSE traffic.

    A Milwaukeean driving to Chicago chooses one of three direct routes within Illinois: I-94 the whole way, US 41 (rejoining I-94 much farther south), or I-294 to I-90. Having 3 options at least gives you a shot at skirting traffic jams. Coming in from Madison, you are stuck with I-90.

    Madison used to be a travel backwater; it isn’t any more. While Milwaukee air travel is declining (so much that Milwaukee may totally close one airport concourse), Madison air traffic is smaller but at least growing. Until a few years ago for example, it was impossible to fly non-stop Madison-NYC; now both United and Delta fly that route.

    A few weeks ago, Delta announced non-stop Madison-Salt Lake City service. (Delta has a large hub in Salt Lake City.) The significance of this is that Delta does NOT fly Milwaukee-Salt Lake City; for its Salt Lake City hub, Delta apparently considers Madison a more important city than Milwaukee. I’m sure we will see more of this in the future.

    Most of Milwaukee’s conservatives see Madison as a bunch of ivory-tower public employees feeding at the taxpayer trough. What most of Milwaukee doesn’t get is that Madison is a hotbed for PRIVATE-SECTOR high-tech employment.

    A few years ago, Microsoft expanded its Madison R&D labs. Google maintains an office. Amazon’s “Bop” subsidiary (clothing) is based there and even has a retail store on State Street. Epic Systems, a 1979 high-tech Madison startup (google it), now has over 6,000 white-collar employees in metro Madison (about the size of AO Smith’s blue-collar employment in the “good old days”).

    I did not call the Hiawatha YOUR train. I was referring to the typical Milwaukee conservative leader (like Scott Walker, Charlie Sykes, or former JS columnist Pat McIlheran) who railed (pun intended) against the $7 million subsidy for the Madison train extension, but never complained about the very similar Wisconsin subsidy paid year-after-year for the existing Hiawatha (about $5.7 million for 2012).

    I am surprised you said “I couldn’t care less if that route [the Hiawatha] went by the boards tomorrow it makes no difference to me.” because in an earlier post you said “Some rail actually works, like the Hiawatha …” and “So Scott Walker supports the Hiawatha…so do I. Many Conservatives support some form of rail.”

  48. Robert R. says:

    Chris, I preempted an argument that I’ve seen plenty of partisan hacks make. And there have been plenty of them. With the number one red herring mischaracterizing the plan as a Madison-Milwaukee train. I don’t take anyone seriously who resorts to that partisan hackery.

    If you don’t look at a transportation plan as a whole, you’re not being logical or honest. You’re being political.

    There’s a place for roads, rail, and local transit in the overall transportation plan for the State of Wisconsin. How much you spend on each of them is, of course, up for debate, but the political debate has been flat out binary (roads are good/bad, transit is good/bad, rail is good/bad) which is flat out dumb. And both sides are guilty of it. Granted, there are limited resources, but there’s also a need for balance. Not only between those various forms, but future needs vs. present needs. Hopefully we can get past that “transportation is socialism” stupidity soon.

    There’s also a need for honesty. We’re still subsidizing the Hiawatha. Only, now the State is spending money for a train set that’s rusting outside, still has to fix the Milwaukee train shed, has freight tracks to upgrade, has crossings and signals that will eventually need upgrading, the existing trainsets will need replacement, etc. and that funding is coming out of the State’s transportation fund that could go for roads. Ironically, since the $800 million is still being spent, we’re spending more on trains nationwide than we would have. There was a deal to be cut, which a pragmatic administration could have taken advantage of, that would have saved the transportation fund a significant amount in the shortrun. But, we all know that Talgo is going to be paid eventually, the State is not going to get a waiver for the ADA upgrades (and fix the roof) to the train shed, the current Hiawatha set is going to need replacement, and the State is going to either build a maintenance facility for it’s Talgo trainset or eat the whole thing, etc.

    Getting back on subject, frankly the time to address this stretch of the interstate should have been when Miller Park was being built. Ultimately, I believe that it’s going to cost too much to put up a double decker and that the plans will be to take more of the cemetary over local objections. The Brewers are the only ones with enough pull to really change the debate and I don’t think they’re that interested. At least at present.

  49. Chris Byhre says:

    Tom, I simply stated that the Hiawatha has no direct impact on my life, I am not a champion for it though it probably makes sense. I am not sure why you were surprised. Driving can be expensive, riding a train can be expensive. Typically, if you have two or certainly 3 or more people going to a destination, it is much cheaper to drive. This includes tolls, parking etc. I am well aware of the growth of Madison but it is, and always will be a third tier city. MKE has non stop flights to Seattle, San Fran, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston etc etc. So what? Enjoy the flight to Salt Lake City, that flight will most certainly put Madison on the world stage. You and Robert both seem to like to pigeonhole Conservatives and overly generalize the arguments they make. That kind of reasoning prevents honest discussion. Robert, I am glad you brought up the double decking of the freeway because that was what this thread is about. It might make sense, it is something we need to look into. There is a bottleneck of traffic there and it should be addressed. If the people near there do not like it, too bad, they should not have moved right next to a freeway.

  50. Beer Baron says:

    All I know is Waukesha County has proved to be a hindrance for developing the metro area into a world-class city and economically, that area is a dead socket. Personally I think an underground bullet train between Milwaukee and Madison would be best, followed by bullet train to the Twin Cities with a stop in the Dells and Eau Claire. Make it 20 minutes from city to city, then less than three hours to the TC’s. That way the economically relevant areas of the state would be connected, Waukesha County couldn’t stop the project (given the rails are underground, heck go under the expressway, that’s federal land and Walker couldn’t stop that)! Connect them at the airports. Push for more domestic flights out of Madison, maybe get some international flights into Mitchell (to ease O’Hare traffic while still serving Chicago). Madison has a very thriving tech community, while Milwaukee is still trying to find ways to reinvent itself, but it’s on the way. All I know is the economically depraved and geographically challenged continue to try and thwart our economic plans. Chris, Tom and the Dane County crew should be in D.C. now making this train thing happen.

    Oh, and getting the federal funding to build a regional metro system for the transit system. Put it to a vote again, it will pass in the county. And Racine would also get on board and there is a lot of economic potential in that area as well. Make it happen. Walker has been at war with Milwaukee County for 10 years trying to destroy it. Maybe it’s time we all grow political backbones and stand up against this travesty.

  51. Robert R. says:

    Since the GOP is doing a lot of soul searching on how to connect to the younger generation and minorities, I’d suggest that this freeways uber all / screw you if you live near one attitude is an issue they can evolve on and not violate any of their core principles. Their are few issues that impact Americans across the board more than transportation, and if your platform is against public transportation for people that can’t afford cars and against aid for local roads, so that those same people wake up to potholes every day, you’re asking for them not to support you in the first place. The younger generation as well isn’t against public transit, possibly because they can plug in their laptop/smart phone and ignore everything else.

    Especially when many in the business community believe that public transit is a good way to connect labor to the employer, I think the GOP is creating a false dichotomy and a fight that they don’t have to wage. Especially since it’s not a national issue. I’m willing to bet that East Coast Republicans aren’t running against Amtrak/mass transit, not if they’re running a statewide race.

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