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Monday, April 27, 2009

Forget 34: Let's Ask Herseth Sandlin for Madison Commuter Rail!

The Madison City Commission reviews a request for transportation funding information for our Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin at tonight's meeting. The commissioners will likely focus on providing data that supports our begging and pleading for a big fat earmark to bring four lanes of freeway fun to Highway 34 between Madison and I-29.

But as I look at the Congresswoman's info request in the agenda packet (pp. 10–15), I notice the parts about rail service, both commuter rail and intercity passenger rail. Now I've heard the stimulus package puts some bucks behind catching the U.S. up with the rest of the civilized world in efficient long-distance mass transit. I've also heard some stories from old-timers around town about the good old days, as recently as the 1950s, when they could catch a train here in Madison every day to head down to Sioux Falls or other exotic locales. One gal we know said that she used to catch a train each week in Sinai (!) to go to school in Canton.

So what if (ah, my favorite phrase, right after "I love you" and "Supper time!") our commission got creative and said, "Forget Highway 34; let's get some rails!" Draw up a quick plan to upgrade the BNSF line from Madison to Sioux Falls (with stops in beautiful Wentworth, Chester, Colton, Lyons, and Crooks!). Add a spur from Wentworth to create a Madison–Brookings connection. (See South Dakota rail map here). Think of the advantages:
  1. Regular rail service replaces hundreds of car trips a day, increasing safety and reducing wear and tear on Highway 34.
  2. Hundreds of commuters can talk on their cell phones on their way to work instead of yakking while driving (more safety!).
  3. More people can read books (or the Madville Times on their Blackberries!) on the way to and from work, increasing the general intelligence.
  4. Sioux Falls gets more rail commuters and fewer small-towners driving like honyockers on the big-city streets.
  5. Commuters get healthier as they walk and ride their bikes more from the train depot to their final destinations.
  6. The Dan Roemen selling point: Madison commuters buy less stuff in Sioux Falls and more here at home, since they go to their Sioux Falls jobs with briefcases and backpacks instead of cavernous SUVs just begging for a trip to Sam's Club.
City commissioners! Now's your chance to make a real 21st-century splash. Highways are so 1990s. Let's go back to the future: ask Herseth Sandlin for a Madison–Sioux Falls commuter rail!


  1. A commuter rail should not take the place of expanding Highway 34, but it could enhance transportation between the communities.

    Imagine a rail service that provides service from near the Sioux Falls bus service center to near Lake Madison and into Madison.

    There are people who need medical care that could ride the rail from Madison to Sioux Falls, catch a city bus to their appointment, bus back to the rail terminal and be home by 5pm at a fraction of driving costs.

    Those weekenders who want to visit friends and family at Lake Madison and Lake Brant could also commute from Sioux Falls to our area on the train. Might have business and industrial potential too.

    Why settle for one or the other, let's do both.

  2. Our population densities are simply too low for rail to work in SD and our bus systems are questionably efficient at best. Such a setup would be a massive money hemorrhage. Most people would be far better served simply moving closer to their jobs.

  3. Amtrak and other rail lines bleed money in heavily populated areas. Yes, the good ole days and riding the rails are nostalgic, but if people have the choice to drive and get there quickly vs take a train and stop at every small town between Madison and Sioux Falls and have no vehicle when arriving in SF, I think the answer is obvious. They won't.

  4. Tony,

    There's considerable debate about what the minimum density is for sustainable public transportation within urban and rural planning circles (there's even considerable debate as to how to calculate density).

    I challenge you to look further into the subject matter; you may be surprised.

    The real holdup is Sioux Falls. It is positively an unwalkable city. City planners & civil engineers have used the wrong chapters in their planning books for decades, and have ended up with a nightmare which will take considerable effort to fix.

    I was at a planning conference last year and had the pleasure of sitting in on a guest speaker--a consultant who helps cities become walkable and more people-friendly.

    It was slightly gratifying to see the mortified looks on South Dakota's city planners' faces when they were shown what their towns were like, and what they ~could~ be like.

    Sioux Falls needs better public transit... and to restructure itself so that people are encouraged to walk places. If those things are built into the plan, a rail system could very well be a viable alternative for commuters, and even consumers.


  5. Dude:

    Those must be some good drugs man.

    Why not institute bus service?

    Cost and risk is low.

  6. South Dakota & Wyoming should receive a spur in order to tap into Amtrak.

  7. We need a spur to Amtrak? It's cheaper to fly I think. Why invest in a rail system that is more expensive that air and that will continue to need to be subsidized? The US is broke you know!


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