1999: Build the Trail NOW! 2012: We Want Our Rail Line Back! (UPDATED)

Perhaps water quality has improved in the state of Wisconsin. Or perhaps hindsight is 20/20. These may be explanations for this opinion piece in The Capital Times newspaper, which serves Madison.

First some background. Wisconsin has a history of buying rail lines to preserve service to shippers. Mostly, this has been successful. But there was a sad exception when officials allowed the demands of a loud and tiny minority to drown out common sense. In 1999, the South Central Rail Transit Commission voted to abandon a then-unused rail line running from Madison to Monroe.

Now the mistake is obvious as there are several businesses that would use rail (see link for details). But the most enlightening aspect is regarding promises by bike trail advocates.

New Glarus native Kim Tschudy, who was a vociferous supporter of retaining the line in 1999, today insists that the tourism promised by the bikers has never materialized, despite the promises from DOT and bike groups that the trail would draw up to 250,000 users.

“In Belleville the grand story was ‘oh, my God, there will be a bunch of shops being built trailside,” he said. “Never happened. A restaurant called the Trailside one block from the trail came and went in a matter of months.”

Sound familiar? The saddest part is that Peoria was warned that such promises never materialize. And you know what else? Kim Tschudy himself traveled to Peoria to address the City Council about this very topic on February 20, 2007. And – you’re going to be shocked by this – they didn’t listen.

The Kellar Branch, had it been preserved for operation by one carrier, would have had two active users (Carver Lumber and O’Brien Steel), potential for a transloading site and hundreds of greenfield acreage along the connected Pioneer Industrial Lead west of Allen Road. Along with preservation of competitive rail connections (as the Kellar Branch allowed), these would have enabled a proactive effort to lure new industry to the city.

But now it is too late. Most of the Kellar Branch is abandoned and, Pioneer Railcorp, operator of the remaining segment that serves Pioneer Park has moved its locomotive off City-owned track (ironically as two grade crossings were repaired), believing there is no potential. Sadly, they’re probably correct. Peoria wants shopping centers, residential subdivisions and restaurants, not industry.

Maybe they’ll regret it in a decade.

UPDATE: The following is a comment from Al Muir. It makes a great addition to this post –

The story about rails-to-trails sounds very familiar no matter where you go.

Recently, on my way to Oskaloosa, Iowa,  I was seeking a rescued depot on the former Rock Island branch line that ran through West Chester, Iowa.  I found the depot on a farmer’s lot, nicely restored, no less.  The farmer owned some of the land upon which a rail-to-trail project had been accomplished.  The twenty or so mile Keota to Washington, Iowa  trail (call the KeWash) was supposed to be a big boon to the rural Iowa area, attract countless visitors and not only be self sufficient, but actually a profitable enterprise.  Yeah, right!

The farmer tells me he sees no more than twenty cyclists per year.  The trail authority went bankrupt, leaving the trail to become a responsibility of the county.  So now the taxpayers pay to blade and maintain the trail, provide liability insurance and  spray it for weeds.  A money maker?  No way.  An economic drag on the taxpayers?  You bet.  And the farmers are still inconvenienced by dealing with broken fields  that make their job more difficult.  The original agreements say that the ROW would revert to the local farmer whenever the railroad should abandon.  Yeah, right.  The agreement is not worth the paper upon which it is written.

And to top it all off, it appears to me that recent industrial development in the area could well be served with rail transportation.  So much for governmental planning!

– David P. Jordan