Public Policy Forum Blog

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

While southeast Wisconsin elected officials, advocacy groups and concerned citizens continue to passionately debate I-94 expansion, Milwaukee's bus system crisis and potential new commuter rail and light rail lines, another transportation issue is looming that could similarly rile people and significantly impact the region's economy. That issue is the future of General Mitchell International Airport (GMIA).

GMIA currently is updating its master plan, which includes construction of a third runway. Airport officials and others have billed this expansion as vital to efforts to add flight options, mitigate delays, and maintain GMIA's status as one of the most successful mid-size airports in the country. The notion of a third runway already has generated concern, however, from nearby residents and elected officials.

The Public Policy Forum recently hosted a discussion on GMIA's future featuring airport director Barry Bateman, Midwest Airlines executive Scott Dickson and Cudahy mayor Ryan McCue. The panelists agreed that more can and should be done to utilize the airport as an economic development tool, a concept being pushed hard by the Airport Business Gateway Association.

Interestingly, several participants also cited the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line as important to GMIA's future growth plans, a contention that also is being made in other metro areas across the country.

A recent article in USA Today cites at least a dozen cities that are building or planning rail systems that would connect airports to downtown areas, adding to the 10 that currently exist. Those plans are being driven for the most part by a desire to provide convenient alternatives for potential airport users.

Another recent article on Governing Magazine's web site discusses the value of airport rail links from an economic development perspective. The article notes that airports are becoming high end business centers in many metro areas, and that the users of such centers demand services that are accessible without use of a car.

It is critical to note that most of these other areas are considering light rail connections (as opposed to commuter rail) for their airports, which have the advantage of serving several downtown destinations and a greater number of station locations in between. Of course, light rail is far more expensive and, in Milwaukee, has been far more controversial. If commuter rail is to be seen as a tool for maximizing the potential of GMIA, logic would dictate that it must be accompanied by a seamless and highly convenient bus or streetcar connection between the downtown intermodal station and hotel destinations in order to make it practical for out-of-town visitors. Seamless connections also are critical at the airport terminal and other key station locations.

While the potential benefits of KRM to the growth of GMIA has not been one of its top selling points, trends in other metro areas suggest it could be. However, those touting the potential benefits of KRM to the growth of GMIA will need to carefully consider how to implement and pay for the other transportation connections that will be needed to make this a genuine asset for air travelers to and from the region.
Rob Henken