[As published By John Previsich And Edward Wytkind in Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel]
It’s been more than 150 years since railroad fever first brought rail service to the Badger State. And while just about everything else has changed in the last century and a half, one thing hasn’t: Wisconsinites still love trains and in particular are fans of our national passenger railroad, Amtrak.
A new survey of Wisconsin residents sends a clear message that expanding Amtrak service must be a part of the state’s transportation future.
Wisconsinites are not alone in this view: Nearly identical poll results from across the country reflect the growing popularity of Amtrak, whose ridership is at all-time highs, reaching almost 32 million last year. And those views transcend party politics and labels. Indeed, one of the only places where Amtrak is not in demand is in Congress, where some lawmakers are still peddling unpopular budgets for Amtrak that would bankrupt the railroad.
With Congress preparing to rewrite the law that governs Amtrak, now is the time for elected officials to listen to their constituents.
In Wisconsin, 85% of residents say they want Amtrak funding increased or maintained at current levels, according to the survey. Very few want to see its funding eliminated. Nearly three out of four Wisconsin residents want the option of additional service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago. There is overwhelming support for expanded service across all demographic groups, all of whom have no problem with the $1 billion yearly federal investment in Amtrak, and many who would like to see it expanded.
Interestingly, the strong support for Amtrak in Wisconsin comes despite the fact that residents currently have limited rail service options. Nearly 80% said they have not been a passenger on Amtrak in the past two years; no surprise here given that the carrier provides only one long-distance train and one corridor service. These views also contrast with Wisconsin’s governor, who, in 2011, sent $850 million in already approved passenger rail funds back to the federal government.
The popularity of Amtrak transcends blue state/red state divisions, offering a striking example of nonpartisan pragmatism that elected leaders would do well to emulate. In fact, Amtrak’s favorable/unfavorable rating was 66%-18% among Republicans and 67%-21% among conservatives. After all, providing passenger rail service is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it’s a public interest issue
Passenger rail is also a major priority for those who care about the economy, which is why business leaders have joined coalition efforts in the state to push expansion of higher-speed rail service. They know that long-term economic growth cannot happen without a greatly enhanced transportation infrastructure and that expanded passenger rail must be part of the picture. Every dollar spent on Amtrak in Wisconsin and nationwide returns $3 to the economy. Not a bad deal at a time when budgets are tight.
Not only do the people of Wisconsin want more passenger rail service; they also want to ensure that our rail system is safe. Like most Americans polled in a large swath of the country, in Wisconsin, 89% of residents think it’s a bad idea to run 19,000 ton freight trains, up to a mile and a half long using one-person crews. That’s why they said they want to see legislation enacted that requires a minimum crew size of two. The support crosses party lines, reflecting the fact that rail safety isn’t a political issue and it has taken on more urgency in the wake of a deadly train accident in Canada last year involving a one-person crew that killed 47 people and destroyed a small town in Quebec.
America can’t compete in the 21st-century economy with an Amtrak system forced to get by with decades-old equipment and decaying infrastructure. We need a fully modernized Amtrak that can accommodate the higher speeds that many states are already planning. And that takes long-term investment by the federal government, in partnership with states and the private sector. We also need to make sure that our freight rail system, which provides the track for much of Amtrak’s service, is safe and adequately staffed — just the way Badger State residents say they want it.
It is time for Washington to take a time out from partisan fighting and listen to what the overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites, and Americans, are saying: Don’t nickel and dime Amtrak; fund it and modernize it.