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Badger Rails
Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP)
November-December, 2011

 

Web Extra Edition

State Rail Summit Explores Michigan Successes
By Bob Fisher
On July 28, 2011 approximately 30 rail passenger advocates from Wisconsin met at the Wintergreen Resort and Conference Center in Wisconsin Dells for “A Light in the Night: Michigan Rail Leadership’s Stunning Success.” The purpose of this rail summit was to hear two rail passenger advocates from Michigan explain how rail passenger supporters in Michigan were able to organize and hold 16 citizens forums throughout that state, and influence the Michigan Department of Transportation to take their goals seriously enough that many citizen ideas were ultimately incorporated into the Michigan State Rail Plan. Original Concept of Rail Summit A loosely organized coalition of people interested in advancing the improvement and expansion of rail passenger service in Wisconsin came together after the initial shock of Wisconsin Governor Walker’s turn back of $820 million federal funds originally intended for rail passenger improvement in Wisconsin. The coalition consists of members of groups that have traditionally advocated rail passenger transportation such as ProRail, the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers, NEWRail, West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, The Empire Builder Coalition, and Midwest High Speed Rail Association. In addition, environmental groups with a broader environmental scope have also recognized the environmental benefits of rail passenger trains and have joined in the coalition. These groups include the Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center. This coalition has been holding bi  1   

weekly conference calls for several months, and the action that had taken place in Michigan with the citizen forums was known to various coalition members. The Wisconsin coalition decided to hold a “rail summit,” and invite interested people and see if such an idea might also work in Wisconsin. Thus came about the July 28 Rail Summit. The Kickoff and Goals Nona Hill, ProRail president, opened the session by thanking the 17 sponsoring organizations. She reiterated these groups are not just the traditional

A LIGHT IN THE NIGHT
rail passenger support groups, but also are more general environmental groups, advocates for the elderly, and rail labor unions, all sharing the common belief that “Rail Passenger has a Future in Wisconsin.” She pointed out that the Michigan folks stressed, and the Wisconsin subcommittee that organized this meeting also stresses, “Keep it nonpolitical.” In other words, the purpose is not intended to single out politicians or groups that have not been supportive, or that are supportive of rail Continued on page 2

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passenger service, and is intended to be strictly non partisan in urging investment in rail service for the future for all citizens. Mike McCoy, also with ProRail and chairman of the coalition’s organizational sub-committee, pointed out that all citizens have a desire to travel, for many reasons, business and pleasure, and the need for trains is real…not a fantasy. Jessie Auerbach of the Environmental Law and Policy Center based in Chicago was an observer at the Michigan meetings and he made the speaker introductions. The Michigan Experts Tim Fischer, Deputy Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council, and John Langdon, a volunteer member of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP), were the two “experts” that explained what happened across the big lake. John noted that this year is the 40th anniversary of MARP, as well as Amtrak. He noted that MARP is not only involved with actual point to point rail passenger trains, but is also working with point to point coaches and local mass transit systems to improve seamless connectivity. The Genesis of the Michigan Meeting Idea Typical modal planning by Michigan Department of Transportation (MiDOT) is that a plan is prepared by staff planners in the MiDOT office, and then it is paraded before the public at 3 or 4 “dog and pony shows” around the state to show what MiDOT is doing. Then the plan is “finalized” and adopted, and local input may or may not even be considered or included in the final plan. When a more intensive public input process was suggested for the federally required state passenger rail plan, MiDOT initially didn’t want to incorporate any “unofficial” (i.e. not MiDOT generated) ideas into “their” plan. At the beginning of 2010 MiDOT had not yet begun the rail passenger planning process. A citizen group of rail passenger supporters, spearheaded by Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, announced they would hold 4-6 meetings around the state to gain
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citizen desires regarding rail passenger service. Meetings would not be DOT led or organized although DOT was welcome to attend. Coincidentally the process began during run-up to statewide election campaigns. Michigan has a strict term limits law. The sitting governor could not succeed herself, and several legislators in both houses were also facing term limits, so regardless of political party affiliation or leanings, there were going to be changes in individual office holders. This major turn over in state elected officials was not one of the original considerations in planning the citizen forums, but it turned out the forum process, occurring during the election campaign, generated more interest, and perhaps influenced some of the election results. About 6 months of planning preceded the first meeting. After the first two meetings word had spread, and other communities asked to be included as meeting locations. Eventually 16 meetings were held in the Lower Peninsula. Most were in on-line cities served currently by Amtrak, but some were purposely held in off-line locations. An attempt was made to hold the meetings in different state legislative districts. The citizen group wanted positive media stories. They kept a positive public relations flow before the meetings began to be held. The meetings were non-political, and were controlled to insure they did not become a “bashing” of perceived “anti-rail” politicians, or taken over by “anti-rail” groups. (Author’s note: Considering the unique volatility now in Wisconsin politics, this “politically neutral” stance is very important to maintain if similar Wisconsin forums are to retain their credibility). State and federal elected officials were sought to “sponsor” each of the meetings, especially in their own district. The Michigan Municipal League was asked to co-sponsor each meeting and they did by sending notices to all their member municipalities. This lent credibility to the process. State and federal and local city/village/township elected officials were generally receptive to the idea of citizen forums. County supervisor support varied, Continued on page 3

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either being “hot” or “cold” to the process. County officials recognize that state transportation funds used on rail service means less money to subsidize county roads. Most of the forums were clustered around existing passenger rail service points, but the schedulers tried to encompass as many media markets as possible, so most “big city” daily papers and TV stations would have legitimate reason to be interested in covering the meetings. They also tried to stretch out the forums in a given area, traveling to other areas in between, so two meetings in a row wouldn’t be held in say Battle Creek, and then nearby Kalamazoo, within a short time period. Effort was made to include as diverse groups as possible. A spreadsheet was made for each selected meeting area and, working with locals, every potential civic club, service group, church congregation, environmental organization, and chamber of commerce was included. The theme “Everyone Travels,” was adhered to, to help maintain the non-political intent of the forums. About 6 to 8 weeks of advance planning was spent for each forum location, but once the process started the actual forums were happening while future meetings were being planned. The entire 16 meeting process took about 6 months once the initial 6 month planning was completed, but as mentioned previously, planning for subsequent forums was going on while forums were being held, even to the point of holding about 10 additional forums to those originally planned. Fortunately the Michigan coalition had the support of the paid staff of the Michigan Environmental Council. One group that was not thought about until after the forums were completed was bicycle groups. In the future this would be a valuable ally as bicyclists frequently will take their bike on a train to a location where they can trail ride. It also would help ease the conflict that sometimes arises when bicyclists become concerned “their” railbanked bike trail might once again become an operating railroad. The two modes are each environmentally friendly and should cooperate.
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Realtors were one of the groups that took an interest in rail service to their community. Groups representing disabled persons and generalist environmental groups also were strong supporters of expanded rail passenger service. Format and Conduct of the Meetings The rail coalition kept it clear that it was a citizen forum and while state agencies were welcome at the meetings it was made clear they would not dominate the proceedings. The meetings were announced as being two hours long and were held in the evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. The venues ranged from churches to village halls and the room was set to accommodate 6 to 8 people around a table, with as many tables as could be accommodated. Most of the meeting venues were offered free of charge. Both “on line” cities with current Amtrak service as well as those communities with no current service, and perhaps located such that service may never be likely, were hosts to the meetings. It was agreed there would be no meetings actually held in the Upper Peninsula, but as it turned out many Lower Peninsula residents had strong positive feelings about rail service to this other part of their state. People attending the meetings were literally “off the street” interested citizens, and most had no affiliation with rail advocacy or other environmental groups in that they usually didn’t know each other until they came to the meeting. As they began talking to each other they found they did have in common a desire for better rail passenger service. The participants were given blank maps of Michigan with county outlines, but no road or railroad routes shown. They were asked to place a sticky dot at their current residence and then to put dots at the various places to which they either regularly travel, or would like to go, for whatever reason, in the state. The reasons might be where they attend college, where they vacation, where relatives live…whatever reason it is “important” for them to travel to that other place. It was stressed by the organizers that this exercise has nothing to do with finances … it is just to build a case as to where Continued on page 4

Rail Summit from Page 3
people travel. Even people who may be opposed to any sort of government subsidy for rail service got into the spirit of the idea at the meeting and marked where they wanted to travel if rail existed. The participants were not shown an actual rail passenger service map of the state until after the “wish listing” was completed. Battle Creek, which actually is a major junction point on the existing Michigan Amtrak service, also was a major center on the “future” rail map. Three routes were “imagineered” at several of the meetings. One proposed route to the Upper Peninsula actually went south to Chicago and then back up through Milwaukee and Wisconsin to the UP. Another often cited route went straight north from Battle Creek and across the Straits to the UP and Sault Ste. Marie. Another popular route directly linked Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids, a routing not now available on Amtrak. Attendance at the meetings varied. Battle Creek, interestingly enough considering its key role as a hub, only having 8 participants, and the highest attendance was 130, with 50-60 being the average meeting attendance. Winning the Hearts and Minds The Michigan “forum veterans” noted that some local politicians were quite eager to take the lead and offer their support, and municipal meeting rooms, to the rail coalition forum organizers, while others were more reluctant to take the lead, or even become directly involved. There was little open hostility against rail service at the meetings although some attendees continued to express concerns about the “cost” of implementing any of the ideas. The Michigan organizers philosophically noted that you are not going to convince all people. Some seem to be “hard wired” against rail passenger service in any way, shape, or form. They did note that during this same general time period of spring and summer and into fall 2010 there were other citizen forums, sponsored by other groups, being held around the state on other topics such as health care and immigration policy, and some of these events were rather violently disrupted with opposing views being expressed vehemently during
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the meeting. No such outbreaks occurred at the rail passenger forums, although there were skeptics. Open discussion was encouraged at all of the meetings. One U.S. Congressman, known for his conservative Republican views was “won over” since his district is served by all three existing Michigan Amtrak routes, and his endorsement of the planning meetings helped blunt conservative knee-jerk “anti rail/anti-subsidy” backlash. A unique experience was had at the Traverse City meeting. Traverse City is not currently served by Amtrak, but the owner of a local short line railroad, Great Lakes Central, offered train rides from Boyne Mountain to the meeting site at Traverse City. This may have been the first time some of the attendees had actually ridden a train. This offer helped win support for participation in the forum, and opened some possibilities of “thinking outside the box”. This ability to be freed from conventional bureaucratic thought was one of the main advantages of the citizen forums as opposed to the traditional constrained thinking of the MiDOT planners who for example, wouldn’t propose rail service on a branch line to “nowhere” or even where there currently are no tracks! Questions and Answers Several questions from the Wisconsin forum audience revolved around the role of the “media” in both promoting the forums initially, and then in covering the results after the sessions. The Michigan speakers said the coalition had established both a webpage and a Facebook presence. The web site cost $30 a year and is well worth it although they are not sure of the value of Facebook. All the media notices are also posted on the web site and sent to legislators. They stressed the desirability to build a relationship with the local media, including the rural “shoppers.” These instruments are sometimes read more than a “big city mind set” may realize and a gem of “hard news” amongst the “used tractor” and “hay for sale” ads can go a long way in a rural area. They also said cultivating the Continued on page 5

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local AM conservative radio talk shows by discussing the purpose of the forums is useful. This may mean contacting the host personally off the air and explaining the purpose. “Citizen expression” is what these shows thrive on, and not being from “the government” can be an advantage. Public radio and TV are usually already “friends” of passenger rail efforts, but don’t take that for granted. Establish a relationship. An often asked question from the media, especially the “conservative” media, is “How do you expect taxpayers to pay for this grandiose scheme?” Answer: “This is what the citizens of Michigan want. How to pay for it is the job of the citizens.” Be sure to do a press release after the forum in the news media’s area. It costs money to generate the mailings and staff effort, but it is money well spent. A question was asked: “Did the meetings generate discussion in the form of letters to the editor in local papers?” Answer: A limited amount. This was not taken advantage of as it could have been. Try to get two weeks of optimum time out of every meeting, both leading up to it and following. There were six people, paid staff and volunteers, involved in the Michigan forum planning. This included events before and after each forum. Local people also got involved before, during, and after the individual forums. Someone with intimate local knowledge of the area; service clubs, news media, influential business people, etc., is necessary. Both men stressed that two terms should not be used. High Speed Rail is not the idea of the planning. Especially in Wisconsin this term has taken on an inflammatory connotation and it is not relevant to the goals of improving rail passenger service. The other term, Intercity Rail, is confusing to some people who think it means “inner city” rail and this conjures up mass transit systems. While mass transit, both rail and bus, is a legitimate issue to discuss as part of rail passenger planning, it is not the main thrust of the rail passenger planning effort, and unfortunately invokes unkind images in some people’s minds…”statewide passenger rail” or “city to city rail” might be better terms to use.
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Some of the Forums evolved into discussion of rail freight service. As long as the discussion doesn’t go too far astray this is ok as integrated service is the economic driver of most rail improvement decisions. The Traverse City example of a rail freight short line operator welcoming rail passenger service to gain track improvements is part of the cooperation needed in the real world. Allow the forum discussion to broaden into areas such as commuter rail, connecting motor coach, and mass transit, as all of these modes help strengthen the city to city passenger rail mode if properly integrated into a system. General discussion comments pointed out since Gov. Walker turned back the “High Speed” rail money, there has been no further mention of the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) mandated plan by Wisconsin DOT. No one at WisDOT will comment on the status of the plan. The Michigan speakers pointed out that initially the MiDOT didn’t want to cooperate with the citizen forums, but eventually the state rail plan incorporated portions of the rail coalition-developed Michigan By Rail plan into the state plan, and now MiDOT is working closely with the coalition. The current governor, although a Republican, supports passenger rail and was publicized standing next to the Obama administration’s DOT Secretary LaHood accepting additional rail money received from Wisconsin’s and Florida’s turn-back of their funds. The emphasis needs to be on those who are “pro rail“ and those who are “anti rail,” not Democrat or Republican. It is interesting that the Michigan governor ran on a “Five Point” ticket. The first point was “Create jobs” and the fifth point was “Help communities.” Passenger rail does both of these things well. Additional Observations The two speakers commented on what surprises came up at the meetings and whether feelings differed from south to north through the state. At the Traverse City forum, in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula it was recognized tourism is an important part of the economy, and the area is Continued on page 6

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developing as a retirement area. The high gas prices are a concern. Tourism would benefit from having convenient rail access (Author’s note: and a strong local rural transit system) and elderly people who no longer care to, or are unable to drive, long distances, could still travel back to the lower part of the state with rail. The west coast of Michigan is a strong Republican leaning part of the state, and there was strong support for rail passenger development in this area. South East Michigan’s old industrial cities are strongly Democratic and support rail, but the suburbs in this same area that are Republican leaning also show strong passenger train support. Other Michigan Follow-Up Points o There is an email list of 300-400 people. o Rail Bonding Bill. Push for its passage. It was introduced in the Michigan House by a Republican legislator. o Invite Governor’s Office and MiDOT to a Strategy Summit to plan the next steps. o Reach out to freight rail companies to seek cooperation. They do own the rails. o Other issues that arose: Commuter rail in southeast Michigan and streetcar line (light rail) on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. o Statewide public transportation via all modes (bus, coach, shuttle van, commuter rail, city to city rail), all received added publicity and public awareness. o Rail connections to airports…specifically raised as issues at Flint and Dearborn forums. These cities recognize that a train to a larger airport can eliminate the need for short shuttle flights between “smaller cities” and major city airports. 2. What are the drawbacks of this plan, if any? What are your suggestions for resolving any drawback you’ve identified? 3. Should we proceed with plans for citizen forums in Wisconsin? If yes, do you have any suggestions as to the initial locations? If you think we should not proceed, why not? 4. What other features, if any, should be considered in the forums to help attract attendees and the news media? 5. What do you see as the nest step(s) we need to take? 6. Anything we ought to know that we didn’t ask about? In all, the groups felt that Wisconsin rail supporters should follow the Michigan lead and hold statewide meetings. Groups thought meetings should be held in Green Bay, Wausau, Madison, Milwaukee, Eau Claire, Stevens Point, La Crosse, Superior, and even into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Author’s note: All the groups felt a Green Bay forum should be held early in the process). Other interesting group observations: Language is critical (“Statewide Passenger Transportation”); we should illuminate the costs of all modes of transportation; we don’t have the advantage of Michigan’s good timing; Work to get discouraged people involved once again in this issue; Show how modes can be interrelated for better efficiencies; get ideas on what people want to support, and use that as future input in State rail plans; find a group(s) willing to commit paid staff time; the message must be consistent over meetings; be ready to introduce bill if the Senate flips; education offered and feedback received from such meetings will be a benefit. Panel Discussion Concludes Forum Nona Hill thanked the people for coming, and noted the break-out groups’ decision to move forward. Ms. Hill then convened a panel of MARP’s John Continued on page 7
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Break out Sessions
Following the two Michigan speakers’ presentation in the morning, after lunch the attendees broke into six groups and discussed six questions that were presented to all the groups: 1. What are the benefits, if any, if we conduct in Wisconsin a series of citizen forums on passenger rail using the Michigan example as a model?

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Langdon, Mich. Environmental Council’s Tim Fisher, and ProRail’s Hill and McCoy. Their major points were: John Langdon It is dynamite to have everyone moving forward on a forum. It is a tool in the tool box, not the entire solution. He reminded us that in Michigan the main question is “What do you want?” Monetary cost is not a factor. Unfortunately in Wisconsin the issue of “What does it cost?” has become the dominant factor. Use term “pro rail” … not “Democrats.” Remain non partisan. Don’t use term “High Speed Rail.” He and Tim Fischer both reminded their Wisconsin colleagues that the political turnover in Michigan meant there were 120 new legislators that had to be met and informed of the results of the citizen forums. The meetings are a daunting task, but must be done. A useful tool, and Amtrak Government Affairs staff is willing to help with the data gathering, is to remind the politicians of all the vendors in Wisconsin that do business with Amtrak. Because of Wisconsin’s less extensive Amtrak routes compared to Michigan there may not be as many, but still reminding each legislator of the direct Amtrak employee jobs provided in Milwaukee, Columbus, Wisconsin Dells (caretaker), and La Crosse, plus food vendors in Milwaukee, and other services provided to service the trains…not to mention the “big one”, the Talgo plant employment in Milwaukee. Charlie MonteVerde of the Amtrak Government Affairs staff from Chicago was at the meeting and offered assistance in this task. Tim Fischer Sweat the political details. They are important. Bring conservatives into the argument, but keep it apolitical. Keep it folksy (as in, “we’re all in this together”). Superimpose a political map over the selected cities…where are the key players on the important legislative committees (finance, transportation, etc.). Hindsight from experience…if you are planning on having more than one forum, and things start to go bad at the first forum, be
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prepared to change tactics at future forums. Get a press release out now. There is a larger group out in the state seeking the truth about the “rail issue”. They don’t believe it’s a boondoggle, but must see reassurance from some group willing to stand up and tell the truth. Mike McCoy People take trains first and foremost because they want to go someplace. The Milwaukee-Madison improvement, which seemed so logical to a person looking at the whole picture, was turned into a political rallying point by the nay-sayers. By gaining access to the nation’s rail passenger system, Madison residents would not have just gained access to Milwaukee. They would have gained access to literally 1,000 places on the continent’s rail passenger system. This is the message that must be gotten across. He urged everyone to participate in the bi-weekly rail coalition conference phone calls. Gary Goyke Gary is lobbyist for several environmental groups. He took issue with an earlier statement regarding the difference in Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s election cycles. He stated Wisconsin will be in a continual election cycle for the next several months through 2012. He urged the coalition to try to get as many forums done as possible into the Fall of 2011.

Badger Rails is published 6 times per year by the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers, a not-for-profit Wisconsin membership association. WisARP President is John Parkyn, Stoddard, WI, (608)788-7004, email: jdp@dairynet.com Badger Rails Editor is Jim Sponholz. Please send comments or news items to: badgerrails@gmail.com Please send membership renewals ($15 per year) and address changes to: Mark Weitenbeck, 3385 S. 119th Street, West Allis, WI 53227 email: weitenbeck@sbcglobal.net WisARP on the Web: www.wisarp.org

November-December Web Extra 2011

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