New interstate railway has potential to connect divided Wisconsin · The Badger Herald | So Good News
The Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois Departments of Transportation are partnering with Amtrak for the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Rail Project.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, construction on railway is set to begin in 2023 and end in 2025. The project will cost approximately $53 million. As of now, the railroad will not include a Madison stop, but the project does allow for a TCMC connecting shuttle.
This news comes as a welcome addition to many Midwesterners who rely primarily on either the bus system or personal vehicles to get between cities across the Midwest. If the project is completed, it will be an especially big win for Wisconsin residents, who have not seen many intercity rail lines go beyond Milwaukee and Chicago. In fact, the only major Amtrak railroad that goes through Wisconsin is the Empire Builder, and even that excludes the state capital of Madison from the route.
While the status of the TCMC line seems hopeful, this “if” remains a major concern, given that many promising rail projects have been shut down by the Wisconsin government in the past.
In 2010, Governor Scott Walker shut down an $810 million project funded by the federal government that would have connected Madison and Milwaukee. The project would have created thousands of jobs and could have been a major player in boosting Wisconsin’s economy. However, Walker criticized the project as an economic “boondoggle” that was consistent with what he believed to be government overspending.
If the TCMC rail goes as planned, it will create a major shift in connection with the Midwest. Last year, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation made a public announcement presentation about the details of the TCMC project. According to the DoT, 59% of Wisconsin’s population is within 30 miles of a TCMC station or 15 miles of a TCMC connecting shuttle.
Also included in the presentation were some of the benefits of the TCMC railway for travelers as well as community development and economic development. The DoT said TCMC “allows travelers to choose how they spend their travel time.”
In terms of community and economic development, the DoT mentioned that TCMC would create jobs as well as support tourism and employment for local businesses in small communities.
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The numbers seem to back up the Wisconsin DoT’s claims as well. According to a report of the Railway Passenger Association, an average commuter spends 54 hours a year stuck in traffic. These delays could be enormously alleviated with the introduction of a passenger railway. As for the economic benefits of the project, the report also states that in 2017, the rail industry created 650,000 jobs and contributed $74.2 billion to US GDP.
A 2017 report published by the American Public Transportation Association describes the greatest return on investment in various categories after investing in high-speed and intercity rail projects.
At the national level, the biggest “travel benefits” were in travel time, cost, reliability and consumer surplus from “induced new travel.” The wider social benefits at national level were safety, reduction in CO2 and other pollutants, as well as a reduction in oil imports.
If the numbers hold, the TCMC intercity rail project will reduce emissions, boost the economy and increase options for people traveling between cities in the Midwest. One aspect of the railway that cannot be fully measured, however, is how it will connect people and the ideas they bring with them.
One of Scott Walker’s tactics to win the 2010 governor’s race was by fueling the urban versus rural divide in Wisconsin. Part of the reason Walker rejected the $810 million federal grant was because he believed the money could instead be allocated to fixing “our roads and bridges.” By “our,” Scott Walker didn’t really mean the entire population of Wisconsin, but rather his own political base.
This ‘us and them’ divide in Wisconsin is the main subject of “The politics of resentment“, a book written by University of Wisconsin professor Katherine Cramer. In a essayshe stated Wisconsin’s rural residents “felt that the important decisions that affected their lives were made in the cities and communicated to them’ and ‘felt disrespected that the townspeople did not understand their lifestyle, what they valued and the way they lived’.
Part of that sentiment comes from politicians like Walker who use anti-urban sentiment to exploit economic hardship. Those feelings may be exacerbated in part by Wisconsin’s lack of connectivity, which could be fixed by the TCMC rail initiative.
A University of Warwick study explored how railways in Sweden in the 19th and 20th centuries influenced social movements. Researcher Eric Melander found that a key contribution of railways was to reduce distances, therefore allowing individuals to travel and spread ideas.
The TCMC project has a chance to connect a divided Wisconsin by connecting the ideas travelers bring with them. If the railway sets a precedent for a larger intercity project in the future, it can help connect the ideas of the entire nation.
Charlie Koepp ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying psychology.