Can we have some truth in labeling for not-so-high-speed rail?

Okay, okay, it's nice (I think) that Wisconsin will get $810 million in stimulus money for the proposed "high-speed" rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. I wanted to smile along with many of you when Mayor Dave and Governor Jim were exchanging high fives, but I can't help but think the reality will be a little less exhilarating than the anticipation.

Call me a buzz killer, but can we at least ditch the label high-speed rail when mediocre-speed rail would be more appropriate?

Projected (initial) average speeds of this line — 79 miles per hour, with 110 mph service by 2016 — are about what automobile traffic already travels, which argues for a more precise definition of high-speed. The fact that lower speeds often are required by local constraints — constraints that, for safety reasons, localities might be very reluctant to give up — gives me plenty of reason to get a grip on the realities of rail.

There are a number of standards with which to compare our forthcoming service. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration defines high speed as above 90 mph (145 km/h), while the European Union pegs it at 200 km/h (125 mph) for upgraded track and 250 km/h for new track.

When you consider that so-called bullet trains can reach speeds of 574.8 km/hour (357.2 mph) and that one particular next-generation Maglev train, which at this point is only in service at test facilities, set the world speed record at 581 km/h (361 mph), you can see that perhaps the term high-speed is inappropriate.

Picture a 100-dash pitting Donald Driver against Mark Tauscher, and you begin to understand what I mean. In practical terms, we're not talking the Orient Express here.

Even at 110 miles per hour, it's highly doubtful that commuters will flock to the eventual Madison to the Twin Cities leg. Remember, the reason for that would essentially be to link Chicago and the Twin Cities by rail, linking two large populations centers with points in between. But air travel between those points only takes about an hour, and the train would take at least three times as long. I'm not suggesting it won't get built because we've endured white elephants before; I'm merely suggesting that Chicagoans don't have that much time on their hands, even to view picturesque Wisconsin by train.

Another truth that needs to be told is the extent to which taxpayers would have to subsidize these lines if ridership doesn't cover operational costs. Since we would be asked to pay the bills, we should at least have some reasonable projections. The Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee is self-sufficient, but no one can guarantee the same for the Milwaukee to Madison leg, and one would have to be a starry-eyed optimist to project that for Madison to Minneapolis.

What would have been wrong with some reasonable projections on ridership so that we could at least weigh the trade-offs? Too late now, which is why elected officials had better pray that this relatively short rail line becomes an economic driver rather than a millstone around the necks of taxpayers.

To at least break even while moving people by train, rail has to be time-, cost-, and convenience-competitive with cars and planes. Triple plays are rare enough in baseball, let alone transportation, especially when we're talking about nearly $1 billion. That's real money, ladies and gentlemen.

Perhaps the estimated 80 jobs that would be created from the state's agreement with Spanish train maker Patentes Talgo will be a gift that keeps on giving, but the jobs created to improve tracks and build train stations — whether the local one is at the airport or ends up being the Yahara Station — would be temporary. In fairness, some jobs would be created for Amtrak employees, and at the local train station, especially if it's part of a broader economic development project like the proposed Yahara Station or if it's placed closer to the Capitol, which would make more sense than the airport. Obviously, with the airport station, local transportation options would be needed for people who actually need to get into town, adding to the cost of the trip.

Is high-speed rail a psychological boost? Sure. But if my 2001 Hyundai still exceeds rail in terms of cost, time, and convenience, last week's announcement could also turn out to be nothing but a sugar high.

No, the best economic news that came out of the past week was President Obama's jobs package, elements of which were announced during last week's State of the Union address. With its incentives for hiring and investment in small businesses, it could provide the kind of sustained growth that public works projects cannot, assuming other disincentives like tax hikes already baked into the federal budget, or record levels of federal borrowing, don't undermine it.

If Congressional Republicans don't think these measures are enough, it's time to put forth their own proposals to stimulate job creation. This should be one area where Democrats and Republicans can collaborate, especially with so many political jobs on the line this fall.

The nation's economy grew by a heartening 5.7% in the fourth quarter of 2009, and the University of Michigan recently reported the highest consumer confidence levels in two years. Yet this growth has yet to be translated into meaningful job creation (the January jobs report is due this Friday). If the President's private-sector jobs initiative works, that would be something to high-five about.

 

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