Mayor Paul Soglin and state Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) on Wednesday denounced last week's decision by the state railroad commissioner to allow Wisconsin & Southern Railroad to close Brearly and Livingston streets at crossings on the east side.
Soglin called the decision by Commissioner Jeff Plale "absurd."
"It's so illogical, it doesn't make sense," Soglin said at a news conference. "We've been speculating as to why this happened because it's so illogical."
Wisconsin and Southern had originally petitioned to close three streets: Blount, Livingston and Brearly. After a review process, a hearing examiner recommended the closing of only Livingston. The city is opposed to closing any of the streets.
Plale, a former Democratic state senator from South Milwaukee, went a step further and ordered Brearly closed as well. The city is asking the commissioner to reconsider the closings and Soglin said the city would appeal to the courts if the request is not granted.
Taylor pointed out that since 1973, there have only been two car-train accidents on Brearly and none on Livingston in that time. Soglin added that in some cases pedestrians and bicyclists would be forced to walk or bike four extra blocks because of the closings and that putting in traffic signals would be cheaper.
Plale says that although there haven't been any accidents, train traffic is expected to increase, making the crossings more dangerous. About 10 trains use the line each day.
"It's like that old line that your broker gives you, 'past performance doesn't guarantee future results,'" said Plale, who was a stockbroker. "I hate to say it, but it's just a matter of time before there's a serious accident. I hope I'm wrong. To me the safest crossing is the one that doesn't exist."
Plale said his decision to close the streets isn't all that different from what the city did a few years ago when it rebuilt East Washington Avenue and took out the through traffic at Livingston and Brearly streets. "That's the exact same thing I did."
At the afternoon news conference, Soglin and Taylor both spoke about how the closings would hurt existing businesses in the area and likely stall current efforts to redevelop the area.
Madison Gas & Electric, which has facilities on Livingston Street, is also opposed to the closing. Two MG&E representatives were at Wednesday's press conference, but did not speak.
"The benefit is minimal; the burden is substantial," said Taylor, whose district includes the area. "There seems to be no reason to close the streets other than the trains want to go faster."
But Soglin said this wasn't even likely. Trains coming into the city are forced to slow down anyway because they're moving into heavily populated areas; those leaving have to contend with several curves and cannot go that fast.
When asked if he thought there was a political motivation behind the decision, Soglin said: "It never dawned on us that partisan politics would enter into a decision on railroad crossings."
"I don't think there's any grand conspiracy here," responded Plale. "We gathered a tremendous amount of information and there's still a lot of connectivity."