PRESS EDITORIAL: Riding the rails to better highways

“We need to utilize railroads more. We can’t just keep widening highways. We have to get some of the semi traffic on rail and off the road.”

One page away from that statement in last week’s Ozaukee Press was a news story reporting that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation plans to widen I-43 from Grafton south in Ozaukee County to six lanes.

The quoted words above, from a news article headlined, “Railroads still vital for local businesses,” were said by Tom Winker, an Ozaukee County supervisor from Belgium who is also chairman of a consortium that oversees a critical 198-mile railroad link in Wisconsin.

Winker’s comment expressed a fundamental transportation truth: Wisconsin has not taken adequate advantage of the efficiencies of rail transportation to move materials and people, and its citizens are paying a high price funding an endless cycle of highway expansion.

Drivers who frequently travel on the Grafton-south stretch of I-43, especially the thousands of daily commuters, will likely appreciate the extra lanes. The highway is overcrowded, even when traffic is moving at what now seems to be the standard operating speed of 80-plus mph (before it often slows to a virtual crawl just south of the county line). Current volume can reach 84,000 vehicles per day. The DOT predicts that will increase by 20% over the next two decades. Crash rates are already higher than on comparable roads.

It is inevitable, however, that those six lanes will soon be as congested as the current four lanes. It’s an axiom that wider highways attract more traffic, and there are practical limits, including available space and funding, to adding lanes ad infinitum. Highway construction also comes with traffic stops and delays that are a major headache for drivers. In the Ozaukee I-43 project, construction is forecast to go on for four years starting in 2021.

Winker’s emphasis is on the importance of railroads in reducing semi-truck traffic on highways. The big rigs clog highways and make them more dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of people killed in crashes involving large trucks on U.S. highways increased by 12% in the 10 years up to 2018.

The East Wisconsin Railroad Consortium, which Winker chairs, has responsibility for a state-owned railroad line that serves nine counties, including Ozaukee. In the Ozaukee Press article, reporter Dan Benson detailed the importance of the train line to businesses, including Charter Steel of Saukville, which views it as essential to its role as Wisconsin’s largest recycler.

The state helps in funding maintenance of the rail line, but its record of supporting other rail alternatives to highway transportation is poor. With ample reason, critics accuse the DOT of overspending on highways at the expense of public transit.

The responsibility for that falls more on political leaders, who in recent years have been openly hostile to passenger rail, than on DOT bureaucrats.        

 The Scott Walker administration torpedoed much needed upgrades to the Amtrak Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha line and killed a proposed Milwaukee-Madison line, both at high cost to state taxpayers, as well as the traveling public.

Wisconsin taxpayers had invested $42 million in new train cars for the Hiawatha line before Walker broke the contract with the rail car manufacturer Talgo, and taxpayers are still paying. In August, the state reached a settlement with Talgo, agreeing to pay $9.7 million more.

In scuttling the Milwaukee-Madison train, Walker rejected $810 million the federal government wanted to give the state to pay for the project.

The folly on display in these costly mistakes is exacerbated by the fact that Wisconsin, after Walker’s stubborn refusal to support a gas tax increase or other transportation revenue sources, still can’t figure out how to pay for even the most obviously necessary highway projects.        

How hard can it be to understand that, just as rail service for businesses lessens highway traffic by reducing the need for trucks, the efficiencies of rail service for passengers reduces the need for highway widening and building?


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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