Express bus service would serve Wisconsin better than proposed commuter rail line
Photo 118704747 © Sean Pavone |


Express bus service would serve Wisconsin better than proposed commuter rail line

Milwaukee’s bus ridership is 57 times higher than the most optimistic projected commuter rail numbers.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is working with the cities of Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha to study a proposed commuter rail service on a 33-mile track from Kenosha to Milwaukee. While the rail line was not in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s 2050 Rail Plan, the study has been prioritized in response to a potential federal grant.

The rail line would serve nine stations and connect to Metra’s (Chicago’s) commuter rail network. Rail advocates have been promoting this idea for more than 25 years, but there are many reasons to be skeptical of this project. Express bus service might better serve commuters’ needs at more reasonable costs. Bus service could offer quicker service between suburbs and downtown Milwaukee. 

For many commuter rail lines, the only capital start-up costs are the rolling stock and the stations. But not this train project. The project would include upgrading the Union Pacific-owned track to allow speeds of 79 miles per hour, constructing three 10,000-foot passing sidings, implementing positive train control, and upgrading grade crossings. In addition, the project would include the construction of maintenance facilities, rehabilitation of various bridges, and the use of hydrogen-powered rail vehicles. As a result, the Wisconsin rail project has an estimated capital cost of $460 million. This does not include the cost of operating the rail line or maintaining the equipment. 

Given these high costs, it would be helpful if the proposed train’s projected ridership would be substantial enough to justify them. The city of Racine is leading a new study with the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWRPC) to determine the train’s financial and technical feasibility. But a previous study, in which the primary purpose seemed to be justifying the commuter rail line, found the number of weekday trips on the railline would be just 1,000 a day.

For comparison, Milwaukee’s bus ridership is 57 times higher than the most optimistic projected commuter rail numbers. And Milwaukee’s bus ridership is down almost 50% since 2010, as the bus system has its own problems. 

There are several reasons to be skeptical of the SWRPC report. It assumes the rail project’s operating costs would be on the low end of the spectrum, assumes ridership would be on the high end, and discounts potential complications that typically arise from starting a new rail service. The report claimed more than half of the total riders would be users of the Chicago Metra rail service traveling to Milwaukee. Yet, Chicago and Milwaukee are in separate consolidated metro planning organizations. Census data shows less than 1% of residents in each region travel into the other region. 

More significantly, these earlier studies occurred years before the COVID-19 pandemic, when populations and employment were growing in the Milwaukee and Chicago regions. Both cities have declined over the last five years.

Current nationwide commuter rail ridership is only 50-60% of its 2019 total. Commuter rail has been the slowest transit mode to recover from the pandemic, partly because many of its former riders can now work from home. Commuter rail has the wealthiest riders of any transit service, higher than the median income. 

If Wisconsin wants to improve intercity transit cost-effectively, policymakers should examine express bus service. Express bus service on State Route 32 and Interstate 94 could provide a direct connection between Racine and Milwaukee and Kenosha and Milwaukee. If demand warrants, express bus service could even offer a direct connection between Kenosha and Racine.

In fact, given that buses are more flexible and cost-effective than rail transit, planners could link each of the seven suburban stops directly with Milwaukee. Planners could also choose a two-stop bus service linking some northern suburbs with Kenosha and Racine. Some stops might need bus service every 30 minutes, while others might have headways of two hours. 

Express bus service operates in most places with limited subsidies, at least by American transit subsidy standards. Meanwhile, commuter rail has the highest subsidy rate of any major transit mode. Before Wisconsin planners depart on a slow, expensive train ride that would serve few customers and require large taxpayer subsidies, they would be wise to look into all of the advantages of express bus service for this corridor.