Thursday, January 31, 2008

The KRM fleece: Steve Lund and the Kenosha News don't get it

Kenosha News editorial guru Steve Lund and his newspaper simply don't get it when it comes to the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail boondoggle.

Lund has been a KRM booster no matter what the cost, previously arguing that a $13 rental car surcharge would be a "painless" way to fund KRM (ignoring the dubious link between rental cars and commuter rail service) and today suggesting a sales tax increase. (Sometimes I wonder if the Kenosha News has ever opposed a tax increase!)

But the most difficult part of this is that the Kenosha News of today ought to check out its own "morgue" (newspaper-speak for its library of past articles). The history is fascinating.

The Kenosha Evening News (as it was called then) carried a prophetic editorial in 1963 when the old North Shore electric interurban service between Chicago and Milwaukee was abandoned. Then Editor Lee Hancock, who rarely wrote an editorial on a local subject, predicted we'd rue the day the North Shore folded.

The end of North Shore service wasn't exactly the death knell for passenger rail service in Kenosha and Racine as the Chicago and North Western ran frequent commuter service between Kenosha and Chicago and several high speed passenger trains to and from Milwaukee.

But things changed in 1971 when Amtrak took over noncommuter passenger rail service. Gone overnight was the North Western's service to and from Milwaukee (and the double track north of Kenosha was later reduced to a single track). Commuter service to and from Chicago remained (as it does today) and Amtrak service from Chicago to Milwaukee was routed over the Milwaukee Road tracks with stops at Glenview and Sturtevant.

The Kenosha News reported that former Congressman Les Aspin wisely proposed that Amtrak service be routed on the North Western tracks but that never came to fruition. In hindsight that was the fulfillment of Lee Hancock's prediction although the Kenosha News these days seems to have forgotten that.

Not much else was said about passenger rail service until 1990 when Dairyland Greyhound Park promised to build a Kenosha Amtrak station. That promise was never kept. The Kenosha News reported on it back then but seems to have forgotten that broken promise now.

That broken promise is not a trivial matter because it could be the key to resolving the KRM controversy.

Where's the Kenosha Amtrak station?

How soon we forget.

When Harold Ripps and his cronies were wooing the State Racing Board to get the license for Dairyland Greyhound Park, one of their many promises (and one of their many unfulfilled ones) was to build an Amtrak station. It never happened.

Now the poobahs want to spend big bucks to build a new rail line on the Union Pacific (Chicago and North Western) tracks north to Milwaukee. That line was double tracked north of Kenosha until Amtrak rolled around in 1971 and the North Western cut out northbound passenger service.

Congressman Aspin wisely proposed that Amtrak follow the lakeshore on the North Western tracks but that idea never went anywhere. Instead, Amtrak kept rolling along on the 79 mph Milwaukee Road right of way into and out of Milwaukee. (In 1990 Aspin supoported a Kenosha Amtrak stop as proposed by Dairyland's owners.)

Since that time, however, two new Amtrak stations have opened in the last couple years: Sturtevant and Mitchell Field. Thus it only makes sense that Kenosha finally get its Amtrak station -- and the Dairyland people be held to their promise to build it.

But Lund and the Kenosha News seem to have forgotten this history nor have they done their other homework on existing rail service.

Right now there are seven daily round-trip Amtrak Hiawatha service trains running each way between Chicago and Milwaukee (six each way on Sundays) funded primarily by the states of Wisconsin and Illinois. These trains travel on high-speed tracks (unlike the slow-poke Metra service). The run from Milwaukee to Chicago (or vice versa) is 89 minutes -- less than it takes Metra to make its run between Chicago and Kenosha.

The truth is KRM, as proposed, isn't necessary.

Wisconsin already helps fund Amtrak service from Chicago to Glenview, Sturtevant, Mitchell Field and downtown Milwaukee. All we need is a Kenosha station -- which Dairyland Greyhound Park promised to build -- and connecting bus service.

The other fallacy of KRM is that it's a downtown-to-downtown rail service.

People need to get to their jobs and those jobs are increasingly not downtown. In Kenosha's case, 30% of our county's workforce commutes to jobs in Illinois. More people work in Cook County, Illinois than in Milwaukee County. For Kenoshans, KRM is a waste.

This doesn't mean commuter rail service shouldn't be considered. It makes no sense, though, to ante up for downtown-to-downtown KRM. It does make sense to force Dairyland Greyhold Park to make good on the promised Kenosha Amtrak station and to provide connecting bus service.

Further, KRM doesn't address Milwaukee's biggest commuter issue and that's serving the western and northern suburbs which haven't had any rail service in decades. The KRM fix is simple and cheap. The Kenosha News should be asking why there's no push for light rail service where it's really needed and why Kenosha and Racine taxpayers are being asked to shoulder Milwaukee's burden.

I know Kenosha News editor Craig Swanson reads this blog and so, Craig, I'm inviting you to respond. Lee Hancock was right about the aftermath of the North Shore's demise but KRM, as presently proposed, is the wrong solution.

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