Dan Melton and his neighbors have a long list of questions they'd like the state Department of Transportation to answer about the high-speed train that in a couple of years will, if everything goes as planned, be zooming through their neighborhood.
Will there be fences separating the tracks from the houses? If so, how tall will the fences be and what will they look like? Will there be street closings? How many tracks will there be? Will the state need to buy some of their property?
"We've been thinking about all this for so long, you'd think all this stuff would be figured out," says Melton, president of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association. He notes that a passenger rail link to Madison has been seriously considered since at least Mayor Sue Bauman's administration.
But still, there are more questions than answers.
"They haven't told us anything," says Melton, a writer. "It's like they're great poker players, and they haven't told us anything and keep us guessing. You'd think they'd know. Just tell us."
Though Madison is generally supportive of mass transit, many people are frustrated with how the process has unfolded and the lack of information about the proposed Milwaukee-Madison rail link.
Chris Klein, executive assistant at the state DOT, urges patience. "We're just not able to answer all their questions yet because we're just not at that stage," he says. "All that will come when we do the design of the corridor."
This week the DOT held two public meetings, both focused on the station location. But at Tuesday's meeting at Madison East High School, many attendees vented about not getting answers. Some questioned why the station was going to Monona Terrace, as opposed to a site by the Yahara River at East Washington Avenue.
While the state has decided to put the stop by Monona Terrace, it has not selected a specific location. The leading contenders are state buildings on either side of the convention center: the Department of Administration, 101 E. Wilson St., and the Department of Health Services, 1 W. Wilson St. The state would retrofit either of the buildings as a train station.
Klein says the state hopes to decide where to put the station by next Thursday, July 1.
Both buildings near Monona Terrace have similar advantages: They're next to the tracks, have room for a platform and would not require the state to buy property.
Dick Wagner, chairman of the Dane County Regional Transit Authority, says that the DOA building is probably more attractive because it's closer to parking. But, he adds, either building has the potential to serve as a great downtown transportation hub.
A rebuilt parking ramp on Wilson and Pinckney streets could accommodate buses, cars and bicycles. And Wagner says either building could easily be expanded to accommodate commuter-rail operations.
Wagner says a downtown train station will promote economic development, helping attract new businesses and keeping others in the city. He thinks the station will boost two long-term city goals: housing and job creation.
Some development is already gearing up near the train station. Thomas D'Alesandro, president of McShane Development Company, which built Marina Condominiums at 137 E. Wilson St., is contemplating a second housing development at 149 E. Wilson St.
The project is in the early stages of development, D'Alesandro says. But the train boosts the attractiveness of the site.
"That's very, very positive," he says. "We're seeing across the country people thinking about rail connectivity as something that enhances where they live. In many places, that's where development seems to be doing the best."
Ald. Marsha Rummel also sees possibilities: "I'm excited about the constellation of the [nearby] parking lot, the potential of a central market, and synergy with a convention center hotel," she says. She hopes the project will provide an opportunity to fix the busy, confusing intersection of John Nolen Drive and Blair, East Wilson and Williamson streets.
Rummel does have one concern: Where would state workers displaced by a train station relocate to? "To me, it's important that we keep all those workers downtown."
Even though the federal government has already approved $810 million for the project, some hope to stop it in its tracks.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, Republican candidate for governor, has vowed to shut down the rail project, calling it a "boondoggle" that "taxpayers literally cannot afford." Mark Neumann, his rival for the GOP nomination, has voiced similar sentiments. (Democrat Tom Barrett strongly backs the project.)
Klein says the next governor could theoretically kill the project. But he thinks this is an unlikely scenario.
"It would be difficult because there will be significant funds already spent," he says. "Any money already spent, we would have to repay the feds for. And none of this money could go to any other purpose, like highways."
Klein adds that conservative stalwart Tommy Thompson committed $50 million to a train link when he was governor. Some of this has been spent, and the rest is still available.
Moreover, by the end of this year, Klein says, "we'll literally have shovels in the ground."
The project timeline is as follows: By this summer or early fall, an environmental assessment will have started for all four train stations along the Milwaukee-Madison route. By the end of this year, the corridor design - track improvements needed, street closings required, etc. - will be completed and the first work will have started, west of Waterloo, on tracks owned by the state.
In early 2011, the environmental assessment for the stations will be complete, and the design of those stations will begin. In early 2012, construction on the stations will start.
The trains will begin running in early 2013, though Klein adds, "To identify a specific month would be hard."
But the process still frustrates those who will have trains running through their backyard up to 10 times a day. Several people vented at Tuesday's meeting about the lack of information on the project.
Peng Her, executive director of the East Isthmus Neighborhoods Planning Council, was unimpressed after listening to DOT's presentation Tuesday. He says DOT talks a good game but isn't genuinely engaging the public.
"It's always, 'We want your input, we're just starting,'" he said. "But folks have been engaging them for many months now [and still don't have answers]."
Klein insists the DOT is taking public input seriously. He says the station was originally going to be at the airport, but DOT changed plans because so many people wanted it downtown. "People say they do not have a voice, but they do."
As for project details, Klein says that track neighbors will have a chance to weigh in once corridor design begins.
"Neighborhood groups, church groups, picnics, whatever it is," he says. "We'll have phone numbers available. You will see our information everywhere, and you can just call and request a meeting."