Way back in 1972, transportation consultant Charles Montooth, who had already become one of the key members of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Taliesin Architects, urged the country to take a second look before abandoning the thousands of miles of branch railroad lines that the big railroad companies had decided had become a nuisance.
The big railroads had concluded that lines serving small communities, including here in Wisconsin, weren’t profitable enough. America’s massive Interstate system was nearing completion and trucking companies, which had unlimited and low-cost use of the new super highways, were, frankly, eating the railroads’ lunch in capturing the freight business.
Nevertheless, Montooth was one of a few who would look into the future and predict what abandoning the lines that served small businesses and factories in smaller locales would not only mean to the local economy, but the pressure that would bring to local roads and highways.
“As rails now operate, of course, branch lines do seem unlikely as viable units of our transportation network,” Montooth admitted in that 1972 piece for Trains Magazine. “But drive down one of our highways behind a truck some day when traffic conditions do not permit fast and free movement. Then think of the worthwhile use the adjacent pair of rusty rails on empty right of way is missing. Why not give thought to the future? Are we not going to have to build new roads to handle the cumbersome trucks of the free citizen?”
Jim Flemming of Madison isn’t an I-told-you-so kind of guy, but he is a latter day Montooth. Flemming, who grew up in a railroad family and today serves as a Dane County representative on two of the state’s rail transit commissions, believes now more than ever that it was a mistake back in 1999 when the South Central Rail Transit Commission, spurred on by the state Highway Department and a coalition of bicycle groups, voted 6-3 to tear up the old Illinois Central tracks between Madison and Monroe.
The rail transit commissions, of which there are seven in Wisconsin, were created to preserve and continue freight rail service throughout the state, making sure smaller communities continued to have access to freight rail once the big boys abandoned the branch routes. Indeed, they were a response to the pleas from the likes of Charles Montooth.
Under a new state statute at the time, the commissions became owners of the routes — in many cases the railroads sold the branch lines for a buck to the state — and were made responsible for their use. In this area, two of the rail transit commissions, the South Central and the Wisconsin River, eventually contracted with Wisconsin and Southern Railroad to operate trains on the lines, an arrangement that continues to this day.
But in some cases, exemplified by the Madison-to-Monroe line, the commissions voted to abandon the lines, tear up the tracks and build bike paths in their place.
Flemming was one of several, including elected officials from every municipality from the town of Montrose in Dane County to the village of Monticello in Green, who warned that to abandon the line would stymie business development in their communities. Interestingly, Wisconsin and Southern had the rights to operate the line back then, too, but wasn’t running any trains, insisting there wasn’t enough business, a claim that the municipalities disputed. The railroad was too busy elsewhere and never solicited customers, they countered.
But they were thwarted by a hostile Department of Transportation that claimed there was no money to maintain the tracks and a couple of bridges on the route. Even Rodney Kreunen, the then-outspoken railroad commissioner, wouldn’t back saving the line. Plus, a consortium of bicycle groups promised a bike trail would bring tens of thousands of bikers to the trail, spurring tourism in the small communities along the route.
Today, several businesses along what is now the Badger Trail bike path could use rail service, just as Flemming and others predicted. Agri Services in Belleville has added considerable more grain storage that needs to be shipped. Swiss Colony and the old Huber Brewery in Monroe could use service, as could several other small factories and businesses. Some have even relocated because they can’t ship by rail.
So instead of tons of freight being delivered on rail cars, thousands of truckloads are bearing down on the streets and highways that taxpayers will need to repair and replace.
New Glarus native Kim Tschudy, who was a vociferous supporter of retaining the line in 1999, today insists that the tourism promised by the bikers has never materialized, despite the promises from DOT and bike groups that the trail would draw up to 250,000 users.
“In Belleville the grand story was ‘oh, my God, there will be a bunch of shops being built trailside,” he said. “Never happened. A restaurant called the Trailside one block from the trail came and went in a matter of months.”
Unfortunately, the damage has been done. It would be extremely difficult to turn the bike trail back into an operating freight rail line at this juncture, but Flemming and others want this decision to serve as an example for the future.
As our population grows and our roads become more and more congested, the need for a diversified transportation system will become critical. As Charles Montooth said 40 years ago, we should look to the future by saving and improving what we already have in place.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org