Madison Commuter Rail: Let Taxpayers Beware!

Published March 1, 2003

How would you feel if you bought a fancy new DVD player for Christmas, only to find the next day the same store was selling another DVD player just as good–but at one-fourth the cost?

If you complain, the salesman who never bothered to tell you about the lower-priced model might snicker and say, “Caveat emptor–let the buyer beware!”

We know salesmen rip us off sometimes. But we don’t expect that same sort of behavior from public servants, who are supposed to carefully manage our hard-earned tax dollars. Yet the snickering salesman is exactly what taxpayers are getting in Madison, Wisconsin, with a recent proposal to start rail transit service.

Stagnant Ridership

Madison is a city of 210,000 people in an urban area of 330,000 people, all of whom are located in Dane County. It is home to the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin system and capital of a state proud of its progressive history. In keeping with that tradition, several members of its city council want to put Madison on the map by building a rail transit line.

Madison Metro Transit buses currently carry about 10 million unlinked trips and 35 million passenger miles per year. Madison roads and streets carry about 2.2 billion vehicle miles per year. At an average occupancy of 1.6 people per car, that represents 3.5 billion passenger miles. Transit represents just 1 percent of the Madison urban area’s motorized passenger miles.

Miles of driving are growing at about 2.7 percent per year, but transit ridership has been stagnant for the past 14 years. In the five years before that, transit ridership fell by a quarter. Madison may be a “progressive” university town, but it is not a transit town.

“Transport 2020,” an intergovernmental group representing the state of Wisconsin, city of Madison, and Dane County, recently asked Parsons Brinkerhoff to evaluate “transportation alternatives for the Dane County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area.” A planning, engineering, and construction company, Parsons has made millions planning, designing, and engineering light-rail lines in cities all over the country. The firm recently contributed $50,000 to the campaign for Cincinnati light rail.

Expensive New Ridership

To its credit, Parsons did a reasonable evaluation of several alternatives for the Madison area, including improved bus service, exclusive bus ways, light rail, two commuter rail lines, and four commuter rail lines. The firm found almost no differences in ridership between modes. Instead, ridership was more sensitive to frequency of service: Increasing frequencies from between 30 and 60 minutes to between 10 and 20 minutes (or even between 20 and 30 minutes) led to much greater projected increases in ridership than did changing from bus to rail service.

Parsons narrowed its analysis to what it considered the two most promising alternatives: “enhanced and express bus services”; and enhanced buses with two commuter rail lines. The firm compared these with a baseline alternative, called “no build.” The results of its analysis are shown in Table 1. “Current” is for 2001; the other alternatives are for 2020.

Table 1
Transportation Alternatives for Dane County/Madison
  Current No Build Enhanced Bus Commuter Rail
Daily trips 31,550 37,250 55,500 56,650
Annual trips 10.3 m 12.4 m 18.5 m 18.8 m
Capital cost $12.4 m $20.0 m $60.3 m $242.0 m
Operating cost $28.2 m $31.7 m $36.2 m $39.5 m
Local annual cost $10.1 m $12.6 m $15.6 m $21.1 m
Source: “Transportation Alternatives Analysis for the Dane County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area Final Report,” Parsons Brinkerhoff, 2002, pages 10-22.

Both the enhanced bus and commuter rail options are projected to carry about 50 percent more riders than the no build option. But commuter rail costs four times as much as the enhanced bus alternative and carries only 2 percent more daily trips. The cost of each new ride carried by the enhanced bus alternative is $1.50. The cost of each additional ride carried by the commuter rail alternative is nearly $65. (Calculated by summing the marginal operating and annualized capital costs and dividing by the new additional riders.)

Parsons delivered its highly quantitative, 200-page report to Transport 2020 in August 2002. In turn, Transport 2020 distributed a 40-page summary report to the public in October 2002. That summary, filled with pretty photographs and colorful charts but few numbers, declared commuter rail to be the “locally preferred alternative.”

Buses Omitted

Also missing from the Transport 2020 summary were any data regarding the enhanced bus alternative. Using the same data as the Parsons report, the summary compared current, no build, and commuter rail, but did not mention the “enhanced/express bus” alternative.

In short, Transport 2020 is telling unwary Madisonians that commuter rail is needed to increase transit ridership by 50 percent. In fact, all commuter rail does is unnecessarily spend $181 million to get less than 2 percent more riders. At a cost per new rider of $1.50, bus enhancements could capture that 2 percent for just $450,000.

Why did Transport 2020 leave the enhanced bus service alternative out of its summary report? Buses can accomplish everything rail can accomplish, at a far lower cost. Buses are superior to commuter rail in almost every way:

  • It can take years to start up new rail service, while bus services can be improved in a few weeks to a few months.
  • Buses are safer, causing only 54 percent as many fatalities as commuter rail, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
  • Express buses connecting neighborhoods and communities with downtown and the university can provide most people with 30-mile-per-hour or faster transit service. Rails serve only the people in narrow corridors and, because of intervening stops, average little more than 20 miles per hour.
  • Commuter rail in the Madison urban area will actually increase congestion, since the trains will stop traffic seven to 13 times an hour at more than a dozen road crossings along the route.

Buses are inferior to rail in only one respect: They don’t cost as much. Some people might spend four times as much on a DVD player to enjoy the status of owning the most expensive brand. You might think that is foolish, but it’s their money and they can do what they want with it.

In the same way, transit agencies across the nation have become enthralled with rail service not because it is better, but because it adds to their budgets and prestige. The difference is, it isn’t their money.

Transport 2020 wants to needlessly spend hundreds of millions of dollars of my money, your money, and everyone else’s money just so Madison can have the status that accompanies a commuter train. Taxpayers will have to pay more than $60 every time a former non-transit rider climbs aboard that train.

On January 21, the Madison Common Council voted to spend another $2.5 million, matched by $2.5 million in additional Dane County funds, for further study by Parsons Brinkerhoff. That same money could have been used to begin making immediate improvements to the bus system. It is time for Madisonians to say, “Caveat adsiduus–let the taxpayer beware!”

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.