There are some things that you really wish could happen. But wishing doesn’t make it so.
A few weeks back, the Racine Common Council, on a 15-0 vote, approved a resolution supporting federal investment in constructing the KRM (Kenosha Racine Milwaukee) commuter rail project. The resolution, pushed by Alders Trevor Jung, Mollie Jones, C.J. Rouse, and Mayor Cory Mason, was put together in anticipation of some money coming Wisconsin’s way via the huge ($974 billion) infrastructure spending package proposed by the Biden Administration.
You gotta appreciate these folks’ enthusiasm. They correctly point out that a rail corridor linking the centers of Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha would contribute to economic and community development in a densely populated area serving 23 percent of Wisconsin’s population. Rail connectivity would also help address socioeconomic disparities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to more efficient land usage.
The idea has a lot of merit. Just ask our region’s planning agency – the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWRPC). Those folks found back in 1998 that a 33-mile commuter rail line linking Kenosha with Racine and Milwaukee was, indeed, feasible. Intermediate stations were proposed for Somers, Caledonia, Oak Creek, South Milwaukee, Cudahy/St. Francis and Southside Milwaukee. All these places are along the Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks.
The idea was that commuters could use the line to reach jobs in Milwaukee and places along the way and travel to Chicago area jobs via the existing Metra commuter rail system line that terminates in Downtown Kenosha.
There was a lot of talk, planning and more talk about this in the early years of the millennium. I recall attending a public informational session or two at which maps were presented along with ridership projections, forecast economic impacts and the like. The Wisconsin Legislature, in 2003, approved legislation defining the state and local roles in funding the thing. By 2005, local communities up and down the line had established an Intergovernmental Partnership to conduct technical and environmental studies for the commuter rail project.
Momentum was building. The City of Racine established the Corrine Reid Owens Transit Center at the former Chicago & North Western passenger rail station on State Street. The intent was to link the city’s bus system with the pending KRM commuter trains.
By the way, SWRPC has maintained a website detailing the KRM project because, like all good planners, they can’t just file things away and forget about them. I put a link to it at the end of this piece if you’d like to know more.
So, you might be wondering just what the heck happened to KRM? A statewide election, that’s what.
The 2010 Wisconsin general election turned out to be what political scientists call “a wave election.” Republicans won the governor’s seat and sizable majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature, which gave them the ability and power to do pretty much what they wanted.
The Republican legislators, who weren’t big fans of public transportation, to begin with, repealed earlier legislation that created the regional transit authority, which was supposed to construct and operate the KRM commuter rail line. Then-Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill in June 2011 and the transit authority dissolved in September of that year.
Like in those old black-and-white vampire movies, a stake was driven into KRM’s heart to prevent it from ever coming back to life.
And, that’s why the Racine Common Council can do little more than pass its commuter rail resolution – and wish.
Let’s just imagine for a second that the federal infrastructure bill tosses some passenger rail money Wisconsin’s way. And, it could happen – the proposed legislation includes $66 billion for freight and passenger rail, according to a report in the Washington Post.
But, without an operating structure (i.e., a regional transit authority) in place, our local government likely can’t apply for and spend those dollars. The Republican majority, of a decade ago, made darn sure of that. And, I suspect that our corner of the state would be hard-pressed to persuade the Legislature (still Republican-controlled) to allow it to build, finance and operate a commuter rail line.
There’s another factor about the KRM project that transcends politics. A decade later, everybody else has moved on. Consider:
- Interstate 94 has since been rebuilt and expanded to eight lanes between Milwaukee and the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. (Granted, there are urban sprawl and transportation issues aplenty, but that’s for another discussion.)
- While clamoring and competing for workers, the area business community doesn’t seem to be considering commuter rail in the mix these days. Major employer SC Johnson, which lobbied in favor of KRM a decade ago, simply opened a Chicago office after the project was spiked.
- Other communities up and down the KRM line (i.e., Somers, Caledonia, Oak Creek, etc.) have gone their separate ways. None of their leaders have offered to band together with Racine and revive the project to the best of my knowledge. Milwaukee, meanwhile, turned its attention inward and finally completed a light rail system in its downtown area.
Sure, I would personally like to see the City of Racine served by commuter rail. But I’m also a realist.
Wishing won’t make KRM so. Stop wishing, Racine Common Council. To learn about the history of the KRM commuter rail project, visit: http://maps.sewrpc.org/KRMonline/background.shtm