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High speed rail needs answers

I live where the trains used to run. Sixty years ago, part what is now my yard in Cedarburg actually belonged to the "Interurban" railroad. Passengers on the old train that ran every hour between Sheboygan and Milwaukee could, I imagine, lean out...

I live where the trains used to run. Sixty years ago, part what is now my yard in Cedarburg actually belonged to the "Interurban" railroad.

Passengers on the old train that ran every hour between Sheboygan and Milwaukee could, I imagine, lean out the window and wave to the carpenter who built my old house and then lived in it for 43 years. After he died and moved over to the cemetery across the street, his wife sold it to someone else who sold it to someone else who sold it to me, and I acquired part of the old railroad land.

I am not the only one, of course, who lives or works in a small town where the trains used to run - or still do.

Julie Hornbacher owns Julie's Java House in Columbus, where Amtrack's Empire Builder stops on its way from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities. Julie's in no way opposed to trains. She makes a living partly off them out in what she calls "way rural America." But she isn't automatically getting in lockstep with the high-speed train proponents who want Wisconsin's new governor to take the big pot of $800 million in federal high-speed train money either.

"I just hope somebody has looked at this wisely," she said. "I just hope they are looking at the whole picture and not just the dollar signs."

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Me, too, because the whole picture has very little to do with the $800 million. The whole picture, in fact, has very little to do with us. It mostly has to do with the Obama Administration wanting high-speed trains in places like California and Florida and the northeast - and throwing us a little bone while they are at it. A high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison doesn't really make much sense all by itself - which is why at least some of the folks in Columbus would like a few more answers about where the rest of us fit in should the thing ever be built.

Julie and others in Columbus say they've been assured that, even if the high-speed train is built between Madison and Milwaukee, the Empire Builder would still run through Columbus.

High-speed rail proponents have always said, however, that what they really want is a line that runs all the way from Milwaukee to Madison to the Twin Cities and, if that happened, Columbus would seem to be in exactly the wrong spot. The Twin Cities are northwest of Madison. Columbus is northeast. Everybody seems to think trains are about politics, about right versus left. They aren't, not really. They're mostly about geography, big cities versus small towns and where the small towns are located.

Dave Bomkamp, an alderman in the small town of Columbus, says there is concern that the Empire Builder could eventually be eliminated - and you have to think he might be right even if no one really knows for sure. Just like no one really knows for sure how many people would really ride the high-speed train from Madison to Milwaukee each day. That doesn't really matter to the folks in Washington, D.C. - nor, frankly, does Columbus or small towns like it.

Nowadays, the old railroad bed in the small town I live in is partly a bike path and, near my house, partly a parking lot for cars - which is apt given the reason the Interurban disappeared.

The old train station in my town, meanwhile, has been lovingly restored by the local historical society. It's a really cool place with replicas of old luggage on the floor and a restored ticket booth and what looks like a clay pot at the end of a bench where I envision somebody dropping their ashes - back when you could smoke inside and long before parking lots or high-speed trains that might make sense in faraway states but also have impacts few imagine a little closer to home.

Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com .

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