At the risk of rekindling my PTSD, let me offer an opinion on a high speed rail station in Madison. It has to be downtown.
President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill, now being negotiated in the U.S. Senate, includes $66 billion for Amtrak improvements. The plan puts Madison on the map (literally) as part of a connection between Chicago and the Twin Cities. But the line is designated as “aspirational.” This could be New Age bureaucratic language for “in your wildest dreams, pal.”
But, nonetheless, it has touched off a discussion about where the train should stop in our fair city. City staff seems to like the Oscar Mayer site while the corner of First Street and East Wash has its advocates as well.
We’ve been through this before. Specifically, we looked at all those sites and more in 2010, when the train was not just aspirational but actual. Then-Gov. Jim Doyle had used his connections in the Obama administration to secure $810 million in federal money to pay for 100 percent of the costs of a line from Milwaukee to Madison. Madison needed to kick in some money for a local station, which we did include in our budget for the next year.
I insisted, over objections from some quarters, that the station had to be downtown. We ended up selecting the Department of Administration Building on Wilson Street. That worked because the tracks go right beneath the building. Visitors could pop up on an elevator and there you are! Monona Terrace is just steps to your left and the Capitol looms beautifully just two blocks in front of you. I also wanted the public market to be right there across the street where the Government East parking ramp used to be and which is now part of the Judge Doyle Square development. Alas, the market is slated to be built on the near east side instead.
The DOA site had its share of technical issues to be resolved. The line would have come through the Marquette neighborhood and the feds insisted on fencing for it. Neighbors had understandable objections to that. Also the train would have had to back out to its mainline before it could head off to the Twin Cities or Chicago, which would have added some minutes to the trip.
But it was worth it. Visitors to Madison want to be downtown. They want the Square, the Capitol Building and State Street. A train station isn’t like an airport. Airports have to be somewhat remote for obvious reasons. But trains can take you right to where you need to go. Nobody is going to want to get off the train a mile or two from the Square and then board a bus to their heart’s desire. Take the train to Chicago and you arrive in the heart of it all. That’s the way it has to be.
And, of course, it works in both directions. Train riders want to be downtown, but the increased activity in turn stimulates the downtown scene.
This latest iteration of high speed rail for Madison still feels pretty tenuous compared to the bird we had in hand — before then-Gov. Scott Walker crushed the little bird in his iron grip — a decade ago. But if it happens, the station needs to be in the heart of the city.
This column originally appeared in Isthmus.
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