The Public Purpose
Number 52 - October 2002

Turnip Trucks, Madison Commuter Rail
and the Sierra Club

23 October 2002: 2345 GMT

By Wendell Cox

Sierra Club

Today I was a guest on the Mitch Henck talk show (Outside the Box) on WBIA radio, Madison, Wisconsin. The subject was transit and commuter rail in Madison, and I appeared with Brett Halsey who represented the Dane County (Madison area) Sierra Club.

Early in my part of the program I referred to the “Just Off the Turnip Truck” commuter rail report that has been produced in Madison. Regretfully, Mr. Halsey quickly began questioning my motives. Because of the limited time available on the program and the taken to bring Mr Halsey back to the issues,[1] there was insufficient time to complete my point.

Madison Commuter Rail

In the intervening hours, I have received local inquiries asking for a clarification of my “turnip truck” report statement.

It is simply this. The 1998 Parsons Brinckerhoff report on commuter rail projects that the full proposed 64 mile system would carry between 26,000 and 28,000 daily riders. This is absurdly high. This can be illustrated by comparing the proposed Madison system to the Los Angeles commuter rail system, the nation’s only new commuter rail system serving an entire metropolitan region. Like the Los Angeles system, the Madison system would serve the entire metropolitan region. The comparisons are stark:

  • The Madison system would be 64 miles long. The Los Angeles system is 6.5 times as long, at 415 miles.
  • The Madison urban area (service area) has 330,000 people, while the Los Angeles service area has more than 40 times as many people, at 14,000,000 (Figure 1).
  • The population density of the Madison urban area is less than 2,900 per square mile. The Los Angeles urban area has a population density of more than 6,000, more than double that of Madison.
  • The entire 114 square mile Madison urban area has fewer jobs than the three square mile downtown Los Angeles area, where six of the seven commuter rail lines converge.
  • The report projects Madison’s commuter rail ridership at 26,000 to 28,000 riders. Los Angeles, with 6.5 times as many miles, 40 times as many people, double the population density and a concentration of employment equaling that of Madison in 1/30thth the land area alone, yet carries only 30,800 daily passengers (Figure 2). Moreover the transit press routinely tout the success of the new Los Angeles commuter rail system (though it does not take much to impress the transit press).[2]

Turnip Trucks

In light of these comparisons, the 26,000 to 28,000 ridership projection appears to be absurdly high. Thus, it is suggested that to believe these projections suggests that one must surely have just “fallen off the turnip truck” (Figure 3).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

[1] Because personal attack seems to be a recurring tactic of groups like the Sierra Club, I insisted as a condition of my appearance with Mr. Halsey that he commit to not engage in personal attack, but rather to simply discuss the issues. I joined the program only after receiving assurance from the host, Mitch Henck that Mr. Halsey had agreed to this condition (as noted above, he appears to have failed to keep his word on this issue). My position on “ad hominem” attacks is very simple. Who pays me or does not pay me has nothing to do with the veracity of the facts that I cite (in fact no one paid me to do this interview and no one has ever paid me to produce any analysis of the Madison commuter rail system). Facts are not relative concepts that depend upon the views of the messenger. They can be objectively tested. I am committed to the use of facts that can withstand scrutiny It might be surmised that Mr. Halsey's frustration at not being able to refure not only my facts but my arguments led him to respond by "attacking the messenger." Of course, such behavior is inappropriate in professional discourse, the only kind in which I am willing to participate. Finally, it is to be expected that different people reviewing the same set of facts will arrive at different conclusions. Thus, to invoke the old saying, "reasonable people can disagree." And, they can do so without casting aspersions on one another.

[2] As reported for calendar year 2001.

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