Madison Commuter Rail: Let the Taxpayers Beware!

by Randal O'Toole
The Thoreau Institute


How would you feel if you bought a fancy new DVD player for
Christmas, only to find the next day that the same store was selling
another DVD player that was just as good -- but at one fourth the
cost? If you complain, the salesman who never bothered to tell you
about the lower-priced model might snicker and say, "Caveat emptor --
let the buyer beware!"

We expect shady salesmen to sometimes rip us off. But we don't expect
that of public servants who are supposed to carefully manage our
hard-earned tax dollars. Yet that is exactly what is happening with a
recent proposal to start rail transit service in Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison is a modest city of 210,000 people centering on an urban area
of 330,000 people, all of whom are located in Dane County. The home
of the University of Wisconsin and capital of a state proud of its
Progressive history, several members of its city council want to put
Madison on the map by building a rail transit line.

Madison Metro Transit currently carries about 10 million unlinked
trips and 35 million passenger miles per year. Madison roads and
streets carry about 2.2 billion vehicle miles per year. At an average
occupancy of 1.6 people per car, that represents 3.5 billion
passenger miles. Transit therefore represents just 1 percent of the
urban area's motorized passenger miles.

Miles of driving are growing at about 2.7 percent per year, but
transit ridership has been stagnant for the past fourteen years. In
the five years before that, it declined by a quarter. Despite being a
liberal university town, Madison is not a transit town.

"Transport 2020," an intergovernmental group representing the state
of Wisconsin, city of Madison, and Dane County, recently asked
Parsons Brinkerhoff to evaluate "transportation alternatives for the
Dane County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area." Parsons Brinkerhoff,
of course, has made millions planning, designing, and engineering
light-rail lines in cities all over the country. The firm recently
contributed $50,000 to the campaign for Cincinnati light rail.

To its credit, Parsons did a reasonable evaluation of several
alternatives, including improved bus service, exclusive bus ways,
light rail, two commuter rail lines, and four commuter rail lines.
They found almost no differences in ridership between modes. Instead,
ridership was more sensitive to frequencies: increasing frequencies
from between 30 and 60 minutes to between 10 and 20 minutes (or even
just between 20 and 30 minutes) led to much greater increases in
ridership than changing bus to rail service.

Based on these alternatives, Parsons narrowed the selection down to
two: 1) "enhanced and express bus services"; and 2) enhanced buses
with two commuter rail lines. They compared these with a baseline
alternative, called "no build." The relevant results are shown below.
"Current" is for 2001; the other alternatives are for 2020.

Current No Build Enh. Bus Com. Rail
Daily trips 31,550 37,250 55,500 56,650
Annual trips 10.3 m 12.4 m 18.5 m 18.8 m
Capital cost $12.4 m $20.0 m $60.3 m $242.0 m
Operating cost $28.2 m $31.7 m $36.2 m $39.5 m
Local annual cost $10.1 m $12.6 m $15.6 m $21.1 m

Source: "Transportation Alternatives Analysis for the Dane
County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area Final Report," Parsons
Brinkerhoff, 2002, p. 10-22.

Both enhanced bus and commuter rail carry about 50 percent more
riders than no build. But commuter rail costs four times as much as
the enhanced bus alternative and carries only 2 percent more daily
trips. The cost of each new ride carried by the enhanced bus
alternative is $1.50. The cost of each additional ride carried by the
commuter rail alternative is nearly $65. (Cost per new ride is
calculated by summing the marginal operating and annualized capital
costs and dividing by the new additional riders.)

Parsons delivered its highly quantitative, 200-page report to
Transport 2020 in August, 2002. In turn, Transport 2020, in turn,
distributed a 40-page summary report to the public in October, 2002,
that declared commuter rail to be the "locally preferred
alternative." The report was filled with pretty photos and charts but
few numbers.

Also missing from the report were any data regarding the enhanced bus
alternative. Using the exact same data as the Parsons report, the
summary report compared current, no build, and commuter rail, but did
not mention the "enhanced/express bus" alternative.

In short, Transport 2020 is telling unwary Madisonians that commuter
rail is needed to increase transit ridership by 50 percent. In fact,
all commuter rail does is unnecessarily spend $181 million to get
less than 2 percent more riders. At a cost per new rider of $1.50,
bus enhancements could capture that 2 percent for just $450,000.

Why did Transport 2020 leave the enhanced bus service alternative out
of the Summary Report? Possibly because they did not want Dane County
and Madison voters and public officials to know that buses can
accomplish everything rails can do, at a far lower cost.

In fact, buses are superior to commuter rail in almost every way. It
can take years to start up new rail service; bus services can be
improved in a few weeks to a few months. Buses are safer, causing
only 54 percent as many fatalities as commuter rail, according to the
U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Express buses connecting various neighborhoods and communities with
downtown and the university can provide most people with 30 mile per
hour or faster transit service. Rails serve only the people in narrow
corridors and, because of intervening stops, average little more than
20 miles per hour. Commuter rail will actually increase congestion,
since the trains will stop traffic seven to thirteen times an hour at
more than a dozen road crossings along the route.

Buses are inferior to rail in only one respect: They don't cost as
much. Some people might spend four times as much on a DVD player to
enjoy the status of owning the most expensive brand. You might think
that is foolish, but it's their money and they can do what they want
with it.

In the same way, transit agencies across the nation have become
enthralled with rail service not because it is better but because it
adds to their budgets and prestige. The difference is, it isn't their

Transport 2020 wants to needlessly spend hundreds of millions of
dollars of my money, your money, and everyone else's money just so
Madison can have the status of a commuter train. Taxpayers will have
to pay more than $60 every time a former non-transit rider climbs
aboard that train.

On January 21, 2003, the Madison Common Council will decide whether
to spend another $2.5 million to plan the rail line. That same money
could be used to immediately begin improving the bus system. It is
time for Madisonians to say, "Caveat adsiduus -- let the taxpayer

Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute

Please feel free to forward or reprint this article with appropriate
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You can learn more about problems with rail transit by attending
"Preserving the American Dream of Mobility and Homeownership," a
national conference that will be held in Washington, DC, on February
23-25, 2003. For more information, see

Most back issues of Vanishing Automobile updates are posted at Also see for articles and op eds and for other analyses of urban
issues. Issue number 31, which was part one of the San Jose case
study, is not yet posted; if you would like a copy, email


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