The Bus Stops Here: Madison needs an intercity bus terminal

Madison Bus Terminal July 2009, Credit: Barbara SmithMadison Bus Terminal July 2009, Credit: Barbara SmithYou’d think the issue simple: Madison, Wisconsin’s capital and second largest city with more than 235,000 people would have an intercity bus depot. After all, we have some of the finest intercity bus service in the country, and cities less than half our size have, or are planning, intermodal transit terminals.

Until the fall of 2009 Madison did have a depot, located at the corner of South Bedford Street and West Washington Avenue. But it was demolished to make way for a pharmacy and apartments in September 2009. The resulting chaos has been the subject of many news articles and opinion pieces. Waiting at the right place for a bus to go to Chicago or Minneapolis can be an impossible challenge.

One might be surprised by the apparent complacency of various city committees and commissions, as well as divisions of the UW-Madison, to let the former terminal go without concrete plans for a replacement.

One might also be surprised by the apparent inattention to the issue on the part of the city’s transportation planners who were too focused on establishing a downtown intercity rail terminal to have the time or interest to consider the need for an intercity bus terminal. 

Finally, one might be surprised by the attitude of public works and transportation agency heads who think to this day that the city functions just fine without a Department of Transportation since those heads meet regularly on their own to hash out various transportation issues. Never mind that such a setup oversaw the loss of a major intercity transportation facility. Never mind that Madison lost its depot when this arrangement was supposedly functioning so well.

Now that both the intercity bus depot and commuter rail projects have been tabled, what originally were to be plans for a rail station have come out as plans for a Judge Doyle intermodal facility downtown for bicycle, pedestrian, and automobiles -- not buses. It is telling that the new Downtown Plan’s section on transportation still discusses an intercity rail terminal and land for a commuter rail station, yet does not even mention our need for an intercity bus terminal. It is telling that the new five-year 2013-2017 Transportation Improvement Program of the Madison Area’s major transportation planning body does not mention an intercity bus terminal either.

It is past time for the City of Madison or Dane County to establish an intercity bus terminal. Since the 1982 passage of a federal Bus Deregulatory Reform Act, most terminals are public, not private. And the federal government provides assistance for terminal development. 

Duluth’s plans for a multimodal terminal serve as a good example. Current estimates suggest that it will cost 27.5 million dollars, with over half of that (16 million dollars) coming from a federal appropriation. Another sizable amount (6 million dollars) would come from the State of Minnesota. About a fifth of the cost would be borne by local and private funds (5.5 million dollars).

Syracuse, N.Y.’s terminal cost less than the Duluth estimates (18.8 million dollars) for more buses in a larger city, but it is not designed to be multimodal. The main thing is that the federal government needs to be asked by the City of Madison for financial assistance, and it has yet to be asked.

There is no limit on suggestions for the location of a terminal. The major limitation may be that of imagination. For example, the City Attorney’s office issued an opinion that municipalities had limited standing with which to establish a terminal, a major reason the Common Council was cowed into permitting Badger Bus to convert its land into a pharmacy in 2009.

Tell that to Duluth, Syracuse, or the many other cities that have since established an intercity bus terminal with federal assistance. And the legality of using eminent domain -- why can the Wisconsin Department of Transportation invoke eminent domain to acquire land for the expansion of Verona Road, but somehow the city cannot use it to establish a public transportation terminal?

Let’s get with it!


Meet the Madison Area Bus Advocates in their first column.


Questions to Answer Publicly

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why we don't have a good bus system

Buses are the nether orifice of transportation.  Just watch their portrayal on any television show.  A recent portrayal on the popular "BIG BANG THEORY" showed a bus station as a place full of losers where your bags will be immediately stolen by criminals.


Public radio and television are an ugly garden of automobile advertisements that grow a multitude of "let's get in the car and go someplace" shows.  When Wisconsin Public Television hasn't sold enough ad time, what do they fill our teevee screens with?  The view from a car going down a golden-colored rural road...


The University of Wisconsin's loudest voices, public radio and television, are used to daily encourage people to embrace the car culture.  In addition to the car culture, air travel, train travel and even cruise ship travel get daily kudos from our government-supported media-- Joy Cardin flies to the Empire State Building for her birthday!  Larry Meiller leads a group of well-off donors on a cruise to see flowers in Europe!  I expect Ben Merens will be leading a tour to Israel, soon.


When was the last time public radio did a show on buses?  Put "bus" (the word bus in quotation marks) into the Ideas Network topic search engine... NOTHING.  Try the word without the quotation marks and you get over 1600 hits of Bush, business, Columbus, Gangbusters, abuse, busy, bust...


Our Public radio and teevee are made by an insular secretive group  of people who have no real oversight.  They do what they want, and it isn't sullied by any audience research, at least not any they'll share with the public.  Did you know that the Arbitron ratings are literally a state secret of Wisconsin?


This little group that controls our state's media seems to be paid and perked pretty well.  They don't seem to have read the Wisconsin State Journal of Thursday, December 15, 2011...  even though I gave them a copy.  What was that headline?  "Poverty in the US -- HALF NOW LOW-INCOME OR POOR"


WPR and WPT want to live in a dreamworld where everyone will jump into a car after being told by Joy Cardin where to go...  where everyone can buy tickets to Europe through management's friends' businesses.


We don't live in that world any more and it's going to get a lot poorer, or at least as I understand the plans of the 1% vs the 99.


The University's loudest voices need to recognize the economic plight of the state's citizens and stop living in a dreamworld.   That could start with recognizing buses as a legitimate, respectable option for our transporatation future.