One way of looking at MillerCoors' announcement of its new headquarters location is that the company decided to stay in the Milwaukee region after all. Their new headquarters in the West Loop area of downtown Chicago would place them exactly 1 hour and 4 minutes by high-speed rail from downtown Milwaukee. This is currently less time than it takes to drive from downtown Milwaukee to the M7 region's border.
It seems that MillerCoors executives were cognizant of the potential for a high-speed link when they considered possible Chicago locations. It was reported that one of the key reasons for MillerCoors' choice of 250 S. Wacker was that it is was close to public transportation. No doubt, the public transportation they speak of is the proximity to Union Station which is exactly one block west of the new MillerCoors headquarters. Amtrak and Metra both stop at Union Station.
MillerCoors executives might have also become aware of the Amtrak re-authorization bill that President Bush signed into law on Oct. 15th, 2008, which raises the specter of more federal funding for high-speed rail in the Midwest. Assuming the authorization is fully funded in upcoming appropriations bills, Milwaukee could have a high-speed rail connection into downtown Chicago within five years, placing the two city centers 1 hour and 4 minutes apart. This improvement would shave 25 minutes off current Amtrak service and is considerably faster than the average drive-time of 1 hour and 30 minutes between the two cities.
The reduction in Miller's corporate presence will leave a void in Milwaukee. Though not entirely gone, their philanthropic support and the tertiary economic activity that Miller brought to the community will be missed. We should not, however, write off all secondary economic activity from the MillerCoors relocation. Milwaukee, with its cheap housing, amenity-rich downtown and a pending high-speed rail link, would be positioned to gain more than its fair share of investment over the next few years. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation estimates the development potential that occurs as a result of high-speed rail at between $152-$227 million in increased downtown development. In tough budget times, such an increase in tax base would be welcomed by Milwaukee governments.
A high-speed rail link could also foster housing and employment market equilibrium in the Chicago-Milwaukee mega-region. That's a fancy way of saying that Chicagoans would find it easier to migrate north to take advantage of Milwaukee's cheaper housing and Milwaukeeans would find it easier to migrate south to find more lucrative and more plentiful job opportunities. Recent Public Policy Forum research finds that this migration is already taking place with nearly $400 million in net personal income being claimed by new M7 residents who had lived in the Chicago region the previous year. Conceivably, rail improvements linking the two regions would only serve to encourage more Chicago households to make the move north.
In the end, high-speed rail is far from a panacea. The start-up costs are steep and the operation of such service will likely require ongoing public investments. In fact, an M7 economic renaissance may not even require a high-speed train, but it surely will require the recognition that Chicago is our partner in growing a livable mega-region with a diversity of housing, transportation and employment options.
Rail or no rail, Chicago and Milwaukee are cities that are increasingly seen as two parts of one whole. MillerCoors executives understand this. Do we?
Postscript: If the topic of regional transportation improvements piques your interest, sign up to attend the Public Policy Forum's Luncheon on December 4th as we explore the prospect for regional transit. Click here for more details.