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Keeping transit on track

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JAMES P. LEUTE
September 17, 2008
— What started six years ago as an idea to extend commuter rail service from Harvard, Ill., to Clinton has evolved into a broader study of Rock County's transportation needs.

The extension of Metra rail service has beenófor all intents and purposesóderailed because more workers leave Rock County each day for work in places such as Madison and Rockford, Ill., than those who commute into Rock County or travel to the Chicago suburbs.


Transportation options more in favor are:


-- Commuter rail between Madison and Rockford.


-- Express bus routes between Madison and the Chicago area.


-- Discounted fares on regional bus routes.


-- Van pools between the cities.


That's the consensus of the South Central Wisconsin Commuter Transportation Study, which in July issued a summary of regional transportation options.


Although the group's work started with the idea of extending Metra service, Rock County's location, the travel patterns of commuters and existing transportation infrastructure changed the discussion to include Madison and Rockford, a broader range of transit modes and infrastructure improvements.


"The corridor of travel is really from north to south, and vice versa, with Madison and Rockford as the anchors," said James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager. "Given the recent changes in our economic landscape, our transportation options will certainly be impacted."


In its report, the committee noted that recent declines in Rock County's manufacturing sector have been partly responsible for an increased number of local residents seeking employment elsewhere.


In 2000, about 6,700 workers commuted into Rock County, about half the number of those leaving every day for work in other counties. The committee determined that improved transit systems would help residents leaving as well as local employers trying to recruit workers into the county.


Rock County's position as an exporter of workers is expected to increase by 2030, with Dane County continuing to grow as an importer of workers. That's due in part to Rock County's favorable housing costs.


In studying a variety of options, the committee found widespread support for regional transit. Specifically, it learned that:


-- Inadequate regional transit was considered to be the top problem among six transportation issues.


-- Expanding regional transit to Madison and to Chicago was considered an important transportation investment.


-- Expanding regional transit was rated important in enhancing economic prosperity.


-- Connecting area residents to job centers in Madison was most important, followed by Rockford. Demand to Chicago jobs centers was less important.


-- Connecting area residents to non-work destinations was rated high for Madison and Chicago, less so for Rockford.


Alexis Kuklenski, an associate planner with the city of Janesville, said a meeting later this year will lay the groundwork for future work.


Everything the committee has done so far has followed federal guidelines that should make funding for projects quicker and easier to get, she said.


"We've set ourselves up for funding and additional studies," Kuklenski said. "We went broader with this study with plans for more specific studies, whether they're rail, buses or whatever."


Bob Soltau of the Stateline Area Transportation Study, said rail and bus options are probably too costly, as the demands don't seem to justify costs that could run as high as $500 million for rail infrastructure or more than $500,000 in annual operating costs for a new bus service.


While it's not at the forefront, rail service still is important, the group concluded.


"Existing rail lines intersect in downtown Janesville, which makes it the logical location for the area's future passenger rail hub," the group said in its summary. "The area near the Interstate 90/Highway 11 interchange and adjacent to the Union Pacific could serve as a potential site for an intercept passenger rail station serving I-90 travelers."


WHO'S INVOLVED?

Members of the steering committee of the South Central Wisconsin Commuter Transportation include the cities of Janesville and Beloit, the villages of Clinton and Sharon, Rock County, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Stateline Area Transportation Study, the Janesville Metropolitan Planning Organization and state Sen. Judy Robson.


EarthTech, Cambridge Systematics and Weaver Consulting were consultants on the study.



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