Wisconsin: Forward in Railroad Electrification

Now is the time for Wisconsin to implement bold transportation alternatives. A recent Science Applications International Corporation study publish in November 2007 and entitled Public Transportation’s Contribution to U.S. Greenhouse Gas Reduction said:

“One of the most significant actions that household members can take to reduce their carbon footprint is to use public transportation. Today, 78% of commuters drive to work alone (ranging from 56% in New York State to 85% in Michigan). The annual use of an automobile driving an average of 12,000 miles per year and with an average 22.9 MPG consumption emits 4.6 metric tomes of CO2 per year. Households that have an SUV or light duty truck drive an average of 14,500 miles per year and have an MPG of 16.2 emit 7.9 metric tons per year. The average two wage earner and two vehicle owner household in the U.S. travels almost 24,000 miles per year. Households could reduce their carbon footprint by 25-30% by foregoing a second vehicle and using public transportation when it is available.”

In terms of public policy, electrification of transportation appears to have the potential for the quickest, the most permanent, and the most profound impact with the best ancillary benefits for human health, land use, pollution, and Global Warming. The most effective means of reducing the carbon footprint of mass transit is to use electric powered equipment, with power derived from non fossil fuel sources.

Wisconsin can become a national leader in moving our country back toward a sane transportation policy by upgrading its existing rail infrastructure through a bold public-private initiative. The major impediment to railroad electrification and use of existing rail for public transportation are tax policies that bias railroads against electrification and double track infrastructure.

As an example of a bold proposal, contemplate the ramifications of developing electrification under a state-wide not-for-profit cooperative. This would allow the sharing of construction and maintenance across all of Wisconsin’s railroads including short lines. Building the rail electrification system under the auspices of an open not-for-profit cooperative allows for inter-corporate cooperation under a non government entity that is in keeping with state and federal antitrust legislation.

Wisconsin should offer tax incentives for electrification, putting electrified double track lines on an equal tax footing with single track non electric lines. To preserve the integrity of a state-wide rail electrification program, the resulting electrification infrastructure, maintenance and revenues could be held by the above proposed not-for-profit Wisconsin cooperative. Rail infrastructure owners and operators (I.E participating railroads, regional transit authorities, Amtrak and WISDOT) would constitute the membership. Wisconsin could then offer a state guaranteed “green bonding” program that provides capital for the rail electrification cooperative.

The rail electrification cooperative should be given the right to sell any resulting carbon offsets on the CCX. Rail right-of-ways outside of urban areas should become part of the power generation system with placement of wind turbines at each mile marker. The power derived from these would be metered back to the local electric grid to offset the power used by the trains. The land leases for the power generators’ footprint would then be credited against the hosting railroad’s power consumption. The revenue from any excess power could then be used cover the interest, recover capital costs on the capital bonds, pay for maintenance and fund improvement of the electrification infrastructure.

In keeping with the Progressive Era Wisconsin Idea, the not-for-profit electrification cooperative could work with the University of Wisconsin system to develop means of storing energy so as to make wind power as reliable and constant as power from a power plant. This would help optimize the potential gains of electrification on three fronts by reducing our state’s carbon footprint, reducing our state’s transportation costs, and making us a leader in alternative power generation, storage and distribution.

For the railroads the incentives should be a no-brainer. Electric powered rail equipment is not only environmentally friendly, it can provide service at a higher frequency, and reduced maintenance and operating cost when compared with diesel-electric. Not only would the State of Wisconsin improve the commercial rail freight handling capabilities within the state, but at the same time it would decrease the cost of implementing commuter rail system in the KRM corridor and Madison. It can be a win-win on both the private and public side.

The best of all plans would be to develop a system that can work as part of a broader regional initiative so as to extend electrification to major freight and passenger rail termination points just beyond the state border such as Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. An aggressive electrification program would not only make the Wisconsin economy more immune to oil price increases, it would propel Wisconsin into being the nucleus for a high-speed, intercity rail system, giving our businesses the market advantage in surrounding markets.

Electrification 101: A 10% Reduction in America's Oil Use in Ten to Twelve Years
Electrification 101: The Cost-Effectiveness of Electric Rail ... Examples from Real-World Experience
Electrification 101: Electrification of Transportation as a Response to Peaking of World Oil Production