A Short Yet Daunting Trip

Our staff is looking forward to the upcoming APTA Annual Meeting in Chicago. For some of us getting there is a challenge illustrating why we need better regional travel options. We typically travel by air to conferences all over the country, but Chicago is only 150 miles away for me in Madison and 110 miles for the rest of the crew near Milwaukee. It’s not very practical for us to fly such short distances, so we will be weighing the advantages and downsides of going via bus, train or car.

The last time I had to drive to downtown Chicago I swore to never do that again. Except for stopping at the numerous toll booths, it was all smooth sailing, with arrival planned for non-peak time, until the city skyline came into view. Then traffic crawled at best 20 miles per hour for the final 20-mile stretch from O’Hare to South Michigan Avenue. No math required to understand that’s a long drive for a short distance. The parking choices weren’t attractive and $48 per night for three nights did not strike me as much of a bargain rate.

Fortunately, I have an affordable and convenient option because bus service between Madison and Chicago is pretty good, with nine daily departures from the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union, a convenient location for the majority of student passengers. It takes a little longer than driving into the city, but avoids the frustrations of dealing with traffic and the costs of parking.

Taking the train into Chicago is another option. But this includes an 85-mile drive to Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport station for the Amtrak Hiawatha or 75 miles to Metra’s station for the Union Pacific/Northwest Line in Harvard, Ill. If the rail project between Madison and Chicago had remained on course, it would now be operational, with the station just three miles down the street from home. I’ll be thinking about that as I make the 75-mile drive to Harvard. The only upside? Parking is only $1.50 per night.

When several of us discussed the options, the conclusion was that none of those was very attractive. The inconvenient logistics for this relatively local conference makes the distant ones seem almost easier to reach. Recent trips to Washington, Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston were a breeze due to a convenient Madison airport and downtown connectivity with the destination airport. If only we could improve regional travel where we tend to spend most of our time – driving long distances or sitting in stalled traffic because other options aren’t available. As Leah notes in her column, scores of transit projects underway throughout the country indicate better travel days are ahead. At least in some areas.