Project Milwaukee: Regional Transportation Key to Future Success

Jun 8, 2011

We now continue our series, Project Milwaukee – Southern Connections. All week, we're exploring the corridor extending from Milwaukee to Chicago. Economic development experts say regions will fare best in the new global economy. A key ingredient to a successful region is efficient transportation, and more people than ever before are traveling in the corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago. WUWM's LaToya Dennis explores the options that exist today and what the future seems to demand. It's just past 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and Robin Toewe has just zipped into the Intermodal Station in downtown Milwaukee. Her train home - to Chicago- leaves in a few minutes.

Robin Toewe travels between Chicago and Milwaukee for work once a week.

"I was at a meeting with a client at the Public Market and I looked at my watch and I was like, sorry guys I gotta go," Robin says.

Robin relies on Amtrak's Hiawatha line to travel between Chicago and Milwaukee. She makes the 90-minute trip once a week.

"About three months ago, I was pulled into my boss' office and he said, ‘So how would you feel about going to Milwaukee once a week?' And I jumped on it," Robin says.

She says it's easy to spot the business travelers.

"People that immediately sit down, pull out their iPad or their laptop. And you overhear the phone conversations of ‘You know I'll be to the office in such a such a time,'" Robin says.

Robin finds the train a convenient way to travel back and forth because it rarely runs late and allows time to work or sleep.

Dennis: "Are there any drawbacks?"

"There's not a lot of options on Amtrak. Leaving Chicago, there's a 6 a.m. train and there's an 8:25 train. So the 6 a.m. train is a challenge because I need to be up by about 4:30," Robin says.

The same is true for the evening return trip – there are only runs headed south that really work for business travelers, so personal schedules must be rigid.

"We do need to work on rail."

That's Pat O'Brien, executive director of the economic development group, the Milwaukee 7. It's pushing for stronger links between southeastern Wisconsin and the greater Chicago area, including improved transit.

"You have to have a solid infrastructure to provide the logistics for business and for the employees (who) work at the businesses," O'Brien says.

Regional high-speed rail was dealt a setback when Gov. Walker rejected more than $800 million in federal money to improve service in the corridor - extending it to Madison, saying the government cannot afford such expensive projects. The Obama administration then denied the state's application for money, to upgrade the line between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Still, Ken Yunker is not ready to give up. He says the Hiawatha line is already serving more passengers than ever, so improving it makes sense.

"If it's a good idea and you keep explaining the benefits relative to its costs, it will happen in time," Yunker says.

Yunker is executive director of SEWRPC, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. He says he understands the financial difficulties Wisconsin faces with its huge deficit, but hopes leaders recognize the potential benefits of better connecting this region with the greater Chicago area. Yunker also continues lobbying for KRM - commuter rail linking Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee.

"You might ask, why do we need both? Well it serves a different market. It does a better job of connecting Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha, certainly Racine and Kenosha central cities. And then as well provides a connection to Chicago's North Shore suburbs, which the Amtrak Hiawatha can't provide, it's not in that corridor as well as you can't have a high speed line that makes that many stops," Yunker says.

Yunker says SEWRPC is waiting for federal approval to start preliminary engineering for KRM. However, the Legislature sits poised to eliminate regional transit plans, and continue spending the lion's share of transportation money on highways. They carry the bulk of travel between Chicago and Milwaukee, and the biggest project currently underway is an upgrade of I-94 between Milwaukee and the state line.

DeWayne Johnson is southeast regional director for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. He says traffic in the corridor has increased as much as 31 percent during the past decade, and the trend is expected to continue. That's why the state is adding a lane in each direction.

"As we rebuild we do have a responsibility to look at providing a piece of infrastructure that'll serve the public in the future," Johnson says.

Not only do commuters want smooth sailing on I-94, so do companies that haul product in the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor.

Eric Reinelt is director of the Port of Milwaukee. It handles many big items manufactured here, such as equipment for mining-giant Bucyrus. However, Reinelt says the port can move things only so far.

"The fact that the Interstate 794 comes right into the Port of Milwaukee is a huge service advantage. It allows us to make those connections easily down into, especially the northern suburbs, around O'Hare Field," Reinelt says.

I-794 also provides a 15-minute link between the port and Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport. It has experienced tremendous growth. It recently accommodated a record number of passengers for the 20th month in a row.

Director Barry Bateman says people in northern Illinois now seem to consider Mitchell as Chicago's third airport, and one in a less hectic city.

"For many of those folks it's of course just as easy to drive to Mitchell as it is to drive to O'Hare. We have branded ourselves for years as an alternative airport," Bateman says.

In order for our area to capitalize on increased air business, local planners are developing an aerotropolis around Mitchell. It includes new hotels. One big proponent of improved transportation options is Supervisor Pat Jursik.

"Transit and our roads support all levels of economic development, and economic development is so vital to the region. My south shore area supports a lot of the major manufacturing. We have companies like Bucyrus and Ladish; Vilter is there. They need transportation for their goods and services, but also for their employees," Jursik says.

Wisconsin made a wise investment when it built 794 headed south from downtown and then added Lake Parkway to carry traffic into Cudahy. She's working with communities to extend the roadway at least into Racine County, to provide better links for the eastern communities. According to Jursik, there should be unity of purpose in the corridor between Milwaukee to Chicago. However, a big hurdle is finding the money.