Well, not quite the same; the newest proposal for running choo-choos between Milwaukee and Kenosha has a few changes designed to screw Joe Taxpayer:
- It will no longer be a Metra train. That means those that want to take this choo-choo to Chicago would have to change trains at either Kenosha or Waukegan. It also means that the local choo-choo enthusiasts will have to build a new rail yard and facilities, and do their own maintenance, rather than leech off of Metra.
- Because of that, and because they’re throwing in a Bay View station (which would have to be built from scratch, just like the ones planned for Cudahy, South Milwaukee, Oak Creek, Caledonia and Somers), the build cost has increased from $152 million to $237 million. Even though they’re hoping for 90% funding from the feds, there’s only $80 million in the till from them for this project.
- Even the one “positive” of not leeching off of Metra, the scheduling of more round trips (14 versus 7 during the week, 7 versus 3 on weekends and holidays) turns into a nightmare. Between doing their own maintenance and running more choo-choos, they’re looking at a conservative estimate of recurring costs at $14.7 million per year. They’re hoping for $3.8 million in fares from the 1.43 million rides provided, each charged something less than $10 for a trip between Kenosha and Milwaukee (there’s so many problems with this math, but more on that in a moment).
Houston, we have a problem. We have a main ridership overestimate, a master caution light on the construction costs, multiple warnings and buzzers. Let’s start at the top:
- Construction costs – In 3 years, this estimate has gone up 55.9%. Even that number will prove to be not nearly high enough. Fire up Google Earth once and try to trace the route from the Kenosha train station to the Milwaukee one. Take note of two things: the single track for most of the distance and the lack of a direct path.
First, the single track. That is an active freight line, serving the Oak Creek power plant. Can you say, “There will be delays driving down ridership.”? I knew you could. Notice that south of Kenosha, there are two tracks on the line. In the interest of fairness, however, I will note that the major structures to restore the line to a 2-track line (i.e. bridges) remain and (presumably) will not need to be rebuilt. Indeed, for 14 round trips per day to be reached, that second set of tracks will need to be laid down.
Next, the lack of a direct path. The Union Pacific line curves west away from the Lake Parkway just north of St. Francis Ave (it, and a line that continues north, actually both curve together into the westbound line, but to get from one north-south line to the other, a train would need to back up). While it does appear that it connects to the Canadian Pacific line that Amtrak runs on under I-43/94, that is, IIRC, a grade-separated crossing with no connection. Since that almost-somewhat-not-quite-connected line that continues north from St. Francis does connect with the CP line and ultimately the Milwaukee station, it would be easy to build a couple hundred feet of new track to make that direct connection. Of course, that would require the train to cross two swing bridges in the Milwaukee harbor.
Going back to the schedule, it’s going to be several trains. Logistics would demand that there be 4 trains on the tracks at any given time during the week, more if there is going to be a rush-hour burst.
- Ridership – These numbers just don’t add up. At 14 round trips per weekday and 7 per weekend day and holiday, that’s about 8,650 one-way choo-choo trips. To get to the claimed annual ridership of 1.43 million, each train, each direction, each day would have to have over 165 people on it. That’s not happening.
Even worse, they’re only projecting $3.8 million per year from fares. I know they’re planning on charging something less than $10 for a trip between Kenosha and Milwaukee, but if their inflated 1.43 million ridership can be believed, they’re getting about $2.65 out of each rider. Hell, that doesn’t even get you from Kenosha to Winthrop Harbor or downtown Chicago to Evanston ($3.05) much less between Kenosha and downtown Chicago ($6.40). Let’s assume they’ll go with an average fare of $5 (Milwaukee is closer and less attractive than Chicago, after all, and rolling with $10 would fly more like a depleted uranium balloon than the lead balloon that a $5 round-trip will prove).
First, just for grins, let’s rerun the annual fare take at their inflated ridership at an average fare of $5. Even that only gives them $7.15 million in fare money. Now, let’s rerun the ridership numbers at the annual fare intake of $3.8 million. Oops, that drops the number of rides to 760,000. Divide that by 8,650 choo-choo trips and there’s about 88 people on each and every train in each and every direction each and every day. Guess what? That’s not happening either, especially since the Milwaukee-to-Sturtevant-to-Chicago Amtrak Hiawatha line carries a hair more than 500,000 rides per year, and that goes from Milwaukee to Chicago about as quickly as this commuter line would go from Milwaukee to Kenosha.
- Recurring costs – Using the choo-choo lovers’ numbers, there would be an annual hole of $10.9 million to fill. Let’s get down to brass spikes and use the semi-realistic ridership numbers from above to start. Since essentially all of those rides are going to be round-trip, let’s knock the rides in half to 380,000 to reflect the actual number of people on the choo-choo in a year. That’s a taxpayer subsidy of $28.68 per round trip.
As for paying for that $10.9 million, the dumbest idea is a TIF. First, that is designed to recoup the fixed costs of improvement with the increased taxes from the increased value of the property improved, not recurring costs. Second, I rather doubt there is more than $1 billion in improvements to be had from the introduction of a commuter rail line; hell, I doubt there is $1 in improvements that could be attributed to its introduction.
Grab ’em ankles.