Friday, January 19, 2007

From the Island of Lost Posts: The Streetcar Rebellion

by Tom Bozzo

Our ongoing series of semi-timely posts continues with the nascent Madison mayoral race. Last time, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz faced off against former mayor and MU blog pal Paul Soglin. While Paul ran as something of a centrist, as a practical matter he is not exactly Red State Paul and the choice was between left-of-center candidates.

This time around, the serious opposition is from the actual center-right. The idea, seemingly, is that (to borrow a term from the big-time blogs' discussion of the war) the Dirty F*cking Hippies are ramming streetcars down our throats while viciously sucking cigarette smoke out of same and having the temerity to suggest that Madisonians would be better-off if they had a right to take time off work if they, their kids, or their partners got sick.

This is mostly not comical exaggeration. Both of the serious opponents, Ray Allen and Peter Munoz (African-American moderate-Republican and Latino conservative, respectively), were associated with the founding of the "Common Sense Coalition." Who, we might ask, could be against common sense?

Well, the Coalition's two greatest hits to date have been a thankfully failed attempt to repeal the city smoking ban, and a contribution to the business community's successful if probably self-defeating effort to beat back a city sick-leave mandate. Plus, they run ads to the effect of how bad the Madison business climate is. In short, the Coalition exhibits laser-like focus on the needs of the community, if you just happen to equate "community" with the Tavern League and the Chamber of Commerce.

Munoz in particular actually told the Cap Times that Mayor Dave's tendency to ram things down people's throats was what drove him into the race, foremost the streetcar proposal. I would emphasize, streetcar proposal. For Madison does not actually have a streetcar, nor a firm prospect of getting them anytime especially soon. So Munoz is protesting the hypothetically deleterious effects on city finances of a hypothetical streetcar, not the actual controversy of Lyle Lanley having turned us into North Haverbrook.

Among the things that rankle the anti-streetcar set is the expense of building the lines — a range $15-25 million per mile has been quoted. That's a lot of money, for sure, though the price tag alone is insufficient to establish that it's too much. While I've been a Madison commuter rail skeptic in the past, there are some things that suit the city for a light rail line of some description (here, I'll gloss over the exact type of rail service that might be built).

Madison is dense and getting denser in the central areas where streets are congested and there is no prospect of adding any more road capacity. Moreover, on the near-west side, lots of trip-generating sites are conveniently located along a more-or-less straight line along State Street and University Avenue, out to the retail/office/condo/apartment agglomeration in the Hilldale vicinity. At the latter, more than 500 new housing units have been or are on the drawing boards.

University Avenue could use reconstruction, and a fairly obvious way of reducing the marginal cost of adding a streetcar would be to coordinate the projects, radical as the idea may sound. On the other side of town, a few miles of East Washington Avenue is being rebuilt for something like $15 million a mile, and the outcome is just the same old dumb road, only smoother and with more upscale landscaping. East Wash is something of a lost opportunity, since it's the main drag past a number of infill development sites and leads to the east side's edge city near the interstate; it would be a logical path for the eastern half of the line.

So while Madison may be on the small side for rail-based mass transit, there is a logical route for a line to hook up the parts of the city that are sufficiently dense to support it.

There certainly is room for a proper discussion of whehter the benefits outweigh the costs — Paul takes a whack here, though he doesn't have the right counterfactual (which should focus on transportation infrastructure projects, seeing as much of the money would presumably come from pots of higher-government funding not available for general purposes).

Save us from wingnuts who want to save us all from not-yet-existing mass transit.
Speaking of hippies, here is a video that shows that hippies still know how to have fun dispite all their time spent at protests:
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