High-Speed urbanism: The push against an airport HSR station in Madison

Thankfully, it seems clear that livability and sustainable transportation planning are part of Obama and DOT head Ray LaHood’s plan for American transport. So why is Wisconsin using the excuse of federal funding to forge ahead with its shortsighted plan to locate Madison’s HSR station at the airport?

This is the question being asked by planner Barry Gore, who has researched and is pushing for an alternative site on unused land at the intersection of First St. and E. Washington Ave. Yahara Station, as it is being called, would bring passengers into an urban area much closer to the capitol without changing the path of the train. It would be a compromise between the airport site and an even closer downtown alternative that WisDOT rejected because it would require trains to back up in order to continue on to the Twin Cities. But the city and the state are fretting over any changes to the current plan for fear of jeopardizing the current “shovel-ready” nature of this Midwest HSR segment.

I wrote about this last week for Trains for America, a passenger rail advocacy blog I work on with Pat Lynch. The post ignited an interesting discussion from readers, many of whom are, of course, more interested in HSR itself rather than its effects on cities.

A few commenters criticized the site’s not-quite-downtown placement, pointing out that it’s not very walkable from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus or the Capitol. However, it’s worth noting that due to Madison’s geography, many buses stop at the Yahara site, with good connectivity to both crucial locations. And as one poster points out, that’s much better than the one indirect bus that currently runs from the airport.

Others questioned the validity of using high-speed rail as TOD at all. People aren’t going to the train station to shop, and intercity rail doesn’t attract commuter residents like regional rail and local transit does. However, lodging services and businesses looking for an easy connection for out-of-state partners could easily be attracted to an HSR station area. These are the same types of organizations that often turn land around airports into sprawl boomtowns. By locating this transport node in a well-connected urban area, such growth can be accommodated more sustainably.

One argument I considered in my TFA post is that HSR benefits from connectivity to other modes of transport, like air travel. That might be an angle worth seriously considering if we were talking about a big hub like O’Hare or even the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. But any advantage in efficiency is diminished when the airport in question is only a local hub such as Dane County.

The Madison Capital Times sums the general spirit up well with their opening depiction of a future where President Obama is on the inaugural Midwest HSR ride. He is so flabbergasted by the fact that the train will veer away from Madison to stop at the remote airport that he jumps off downtown for a beer. The administration has stated that we need to be investing in the future of our cities. Surely the feds will accommodate a minor change that will bring this arm of the Midwest HSR project in line with their own urban principles. Let's spread the word and do what we can to help Barry Gore prevent HSR from being an agent for sprawl in Madison.

Image credit: Urban Milwaukee, which has its own excellent take on the issue along with additional useful images


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