Support grows for regional transit in Wisconsin (UPDATE)
By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A broad coalition of Wisconsin business and labor officials, mayors, environmentalists and others urged the Legislature on Thursday to approve regional transit systems to ease congestion, improve transportation and create jobs.
Gov. Jim Doyle and lawmakers are trying to find a plan they can agree on that would pay for commuter-rail and bus service in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties. Other proposals considered Thursday by the Assembly’s Transportation Committee would allow for regional transit authorities statewide and specifically in La Crosse County in western Wisconsin and the Fox Cities in the northeastern part of the state.
The plans rely on raising sales taxes a half cent per dollar to pay for transit. Much of the conflict comes in the details over how the transit authorities would be organized and operated, although Republican critics, especially in the Milwaukee area, have opposed raising taxes to pay for it.
“Now is not the time to propose a tax increase,” said Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a Republican who is also running for governor. “We need more reasons to attract jobs to our area. A tax increase takes us in the wrong direction.”
No one registered to testify in opposition at the hearing. The committee took no immediate action on the bills, but time is running out for the Legislature to act this year. Lawmakers are scheduled to largely be done with their work by April 22.
Regional transit supporters include environmentalists, business groups, organized labor and local governments, and organizations representing the disabled and elderly. They support commuter rail and improved bus service to ease congestion, create jobs, make it easier for people to get to work and spur economic development.
Backers in Milwaukee say a regional plan would also save and improve the city’s struggling bus system.
Supporters said they had delivered letters to lawmakers from business leaders representing companies that employ 100,000 people in the Milwaukee area and from labor unions representing 250,000 members in southeast Wisconsin urging approval of a regional transit plan.
Much of the conflict lies with the organization, and method of paying for, a regional transit system in Milwaukee and southeast Wisconsin.
Both the governor’s plan and the one by other Democratic lawmakers would pay for the Milwaukee County transit authority with a half-cent sales tax increase. However, Doyle’s plan relies on paying for transit in Kenosha and Racine counties to be covered by hotel, rental car or property taxes. The other proposal would have the state pick up the tab.
Lawmakers should work to find consensus to get something done before the session ends next month, said Gary Goyke, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association. He did not endorse either the governor’s proposed plan for southeast Wisconsin or one pushed by Democratic state Assembly members.
Last year the Legislature approved creating regional transit authorities in the Chippewa Valley, the Chequamegon Bay region, and in Dane County.
Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna urged lawmakers to approve a regional transit system along with a half-cent sales tax increase for the Fox Cities in northeast Wisconsin to pay for its regional bus system. Based on population growth, the Fox Cities area will be too large to qualify for federal operating assistance after the 2010 census comes out, Hanna said.
That will put a $1.5 million budget hole, requiring a 20 percent cut in services, Hanna said.
“We’re trying to preserve what we have, not expand it,” he said at a news conference prior to the committee hearing.
Supporters for the La Crosse County regional transit authority said money from the half-cent sales tax increase could be used to maintain and improve its bus system.