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Clark Johnson and Nona Hill have been advocating for passenger rail for forever, it seems.

The couple, who live near Westport just outside the Madison city limits, can’t understand why Madison is no longer considering commuter rail in its public transportation plans. It’s all Bus Rapid Transit or nothing, they complain.

What troubles them is that Madison is uniquely positioned for rail. Much of the basics are already in place. The corridors, and in most cases, the tracks, are already there. No need to close lanes on East Washington Avenue and other major thoroughfares and dedicate them for express buses when you could be moving people through the isthmus unimpeded by traffic.

And, the cost, they insist, would be roughly similar.

Indeed, I wondered, whatever did happen to the commuter rail concept that as near as 10 years ago was on the front burner of both Madison, Dane County, and a fledgling Regional Transit Authority. Some were predicting that it could be in place in as little as three to four years.

One of the major proponents of passenger rail was former Dane County Board supervisor and chairman Dick Wagner, who presided over a committee called Transit 2020 for the express purpose of studying the benefits, shortcomings and financing of building a commuter rail system.

The committee determined that it was viable especially from Middleton, through the isthmus and out to Sun Prairie. Because of Madison’s geography, tens of thousands of potential riders lived within walking distance of the corridor. What was needed was a regional transit authority that would have the power to raise money through the sales tax to support the system.

Then Gov. Jim Doyle succeeded in getting RTAs approved and Wagner became a member and chaired it as well. It, too, liked the route. Included in the RTAs recommendation was a half-cent sales tax to support and maintain it. Some neighboring small villages and towns prematurely stuck an advisory referendum on their spring election ballots to express their opposition to a tax and it was soundly defeated.

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I called Wagner to see if he had an explanation for why it seemed to drop off the face of the earth. No, it wasn’t those rump referendums, but a series of events that delayed federal support. The feds didn’t think the Madison area was dense enough, he related, but it made up for that with land use plans that concentrated people in central service areas. That is still true today, even as Dane County has shown enormous growth.

But, there’s no denying that when Scott Walker won the governorship in 2010 and Republicans took over the Legislature, both passenger rail and commuter rail were shoved to the side.

Walker used President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan that included $800 million to link Madison and Milwaukee as a wedge issue in the 2010 campaign. He was able to use rail by dividing Madison and Milwaukee from outstate Wisconsin to help him get elected. Divide and conquer at its finest.

His election succeeded in axing the rail expansion, one of the all-time examples of boneheaded governing.

Wagner pointed out that not only would the new rail link the state’s two biggest cities, but it would have paid for signaling, upgraded rail and more that could have been used by commuter rail in Dane County as well.

A little less than two years before he was elected Assembly Speaker, Robin Vos, with his lockstep Republican legislators, nixed commuter rail by simply repealing regional transit authorities that had been formed in many parts of the state and forbidding their formation. That included the Milwaukee area and even his own county, Racine, and other parts of southeast Wisconsin. That meant RTAs that formed to promote regional bus systems and other transit solutions for neighboring communities would have no way to pay for them, except, of course, the already overburdened property tax.

What Wagner is hoping is that if and when Madison moves to Bus Rapid Transit, it won’t foreclose natural corridors like Middleton-Madison-Sun Prairie because somewhere down the line the public will come to see the benefits rail transportation could provide. Dozens of communities, some smaller than Madison, have built systems that have been enormous successes.

Clark Johnson and Nona Hill, as well as thousands of others, would be thrilled.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. He can be reached by email at dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.

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