Monday, February 18, 2008

Should the Hiawathas be run by a bistate authority?

Consider this: the Milwaukee-Chicago Amtrak service is one of the nation's most successful. There are 7 daily round-trips and an annual ridership of around half a million. The trip is almost always faster than driving and exceptionally reliable. And there's a ton of room to grow -- there really ought to be late night trips from both cities to allow car-less late nights. And imagine the traffic from ballgames! (If only the Bud Selig has put the new Milwaukee County Stadium for the Brewers downtown instead of surrounded by an asphalt ocean....that's a different story).

Here's how the Hiawathas work right now.

The States of Wisconsin and Illinois both contract with Amtrak to provide the service. Wisconsin covers 75% of the cost and Illinois covers 25%. Why 75%-25%? Seemed fair at the time and the deal has stuck. Amtrak essentially runs the service on a cost-plus basis, meaning they run the service and charge the states the difference between how much it costs and how much ticket revenue brings in. Therefore, Amtrak doesn't have any institutional interest in generating additional ridership or revenue, because any additional revenue just means that the States of Wisconsin and Illinois have a smaller bill to pay next fiscal year. The States thus do have an economic interest in generating more ridership, but since they don't directly operate the trains, it's a little awkward. Wisconsin does run a good marketing campaign (or rather, they fund the good people at Staples Marketing to run the Amtrak Hiawatha campaign for them) but there isn't anything like an annual report on the Hiawathas or a long-term plan for the service.

The State of Illinois has other Amtrak priorities (rightfully so): Chicago-Carbondale, Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Quincy. These lines run through most of the state, while most of the Hiawatha service runs in the State of Wisconsin. And the State of Wisconsin's Amtrak priority is figuring out how to get Madison linked into Amtrak and other Wisconsin infrastructure projects (like the fantastic remodeling of Milwaukee's station). It's easy to see how the Hiawathas get forgotten. It belongs to two states, and thus, neither one makes it a top priority.

There are other models for running intercity passenger rail service than two States paying for a proportionate share of an Amtrak contract.

One is in California. There, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority is in charge of running intercity train service between Sacramento and San Francisco (really Oakland with a bus to San Francisco across the bay). There is a Managing Director (Gene Skoropowski) and a board of directors made up of two representatives from each of the counties along the line. They've got annual reports and business plans and they somehow figured out how to significantly increase service without increasing public funding in 2006. Because it is very clear who is in charge of the service, that institution is accountable and relentless focuses on improving the service and increasing ridership and revenue.

Sounds nice, doesn't it?

Another I learned about thanks to a commenter named Christopher on a post from a few weeks ago. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority was created in 1995 by the Maine legislature to run Boston-to-Maine Amtrak service. It's called The Downeaster and that service is also a big success. Maine's Governor appoints the board members of the Authority, and they work with (but not as a part of) the Maine Department of Transportation. They have an Executive Director, monthly performance reports and a clear institution that is responsible for the service. It would probably be better if Massachusetts and New Hampshire had some skin in the game as well, since the service benefits those states too.

Now, we're fortunate in Illinois and Wisconsin to have some excellent professionals at our respective Department of Transportations. It's unlikely the General Assembly and Governor Blagojevich would have been in a position to double Amtrak service two years ago without the years of hard work by George Weber at IDOT to run a tight program with Amtrak. But at some point, there might be some Governor of Illinois or Wisconsin that might appoint political hacks to run one or both of the Departments, and it is certainly possible that the people 10 years from now in a position of influence in the Department won't be as good as the people we have now.

If we created an authority of some kind, however, then the professionals who would work for that authority to run that service would not ever be part of bigger political winds. The sole existence of a passenger rail authority is to run passenger rail. That's one benefit, to my eyes, of an authority.

Another is that since the Hiawathas tend to fall between the cracks of Wisconsin and Illinois, an authority can help to make the case for investment and build up the service to the hourly and under 60 minute service that a modern economy ought to have. (Imagine that for a moment -- every hour, on the hour, there's a chance to get from the Loop to the Third Ward in under 60 minutes. What else would strengthen the economic ties between Chicago and Milwaukee as much as that?) Right now, no one is really making that case. There are other priorities of both DOTs and there isn't any institution singularly devoted to making the Hiawathas a much better economic asset to our region.

What would a bistate authority look like? Well, maybe the Governors of each state appoint a few members, and the mayors of each city (Chicago, Glenview, Sturtevant and Milwaukee) also appoint a member. Maybe the counties do as well. And that authority then runs the service by contracting with Amtrak, starting with the same state appropriation from the States of Wisconsin and Illinois and they work from there. Maybe they would figure out that it would be cheaper to buy their own trainsets instead of using Amtrak equipment (as the Capitol Corridor has figured out), which would have the added bonus of relieving the equipment crunch that Amtrak is facing. Maybe they would get bonding authority and use a portion of expected ticket revenue to finance infrastructure improvements that generate increased revenue.

What do you think? If you'd rather not post a comment, please email me at to share your thoughts or ideas. But if you can, please do post a comment with your thoughts so others can learn from you as well.


Blogger plaws said...

Clearly the way to go (and said as much the other day :-). Can Illinois do authorities like that easily? OK, Illinois can't do ANYTHING easily at this point in time, but legally? There must be some kind of inter-state deal for Metrolink in Metro East and Metra cooperates to some extent with NICTD on the South Shore line. Dunno if those are valid precedents or not.

It'd sure be good to see hourly service on the line.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

This is not something that Illinois could on its own. It would require the passage of identical legislation in both states (presumably). Neither Metrolink or NICTD are precedents, since neither (as far as I know) are operated by a bistate authority.

11:35 AM  
Blogger plaws said...

Isn't Metrolink run by the "Bistate Development Authority"?

10:33 AM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Good point!

12:21 PM  

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