Transit bill picks up momentum, opponents
The volume of opposition to using taxes to pay for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line rose Thursday to match an increase in proposed project borrowing.
A regional transit authority bill headed to the state Assembly now would let borrowing for the KRM project go as high as $250 million, an increase from the $50 million authorized in earlier proposals.
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, opposes new taxes for the KRM and buses and questioned the need for $250 million in borrowing for an estimated $232.7 million project.
“That’s just a clear example that, before the project is even off the table, they are already preparing for cost escalations,” he said.
The increased borrowing is part of an amendment approved Thursday morning by the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Transportation. The legislation is the latest attempt to let unelected RTA members levy local taxes, such as sales taxes, to pay for transit.
State Rep. Al Ott, R-Forest Junction, who served as the original chairman of a special Legislative committee on RTAs, said he is “extremely disappointed” with the amended bill.
The bill increases the borrowing limit for the Southeastern Wisconsin RTA to raise money for its share of the KRM project construction cost. RTA members estimate federal grants would pay for $158 million of the project, the state would pay up to $40 million, and the local RTA would borrow $40 million.
“We’ve basically outlined what we think the capital costs are,” said Karl Ostby, a board member on the southeast RTA, “and I think they tried to give us a cushion on that.”
The southeast RTA would use a local car-rental fee to pay off the RTA’s debt, which is estimated to cost $3 million a year, Ostby said. The RTA, which can levy a fee of up to $18 per car rental, has not yet approved such a fee, he said, opting instead to wait for the Legislature to approve an RTA bill.
The amended bill also lets RTAs statewide levy a 0.5 cent sales tax increase to pay for buses. The southeast region needs a steady source of bus money to improve the KRM’s odds of competing for federal construction grants, Ostby said.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said it is foolish for the state to let RTAs increase sales taxes.
“It’s just money for buses and trains,” he said. “The single largest problem we have is the out-of-control growth of the public sector squeezing the private sector. I don’t know why we would allow it.”
Vos opposes the local sales tax increase for the RTA and said local politicians in Racine County could counter the tax increase through a local referendum. The Racine County Board on April 13 will consider an advisory referendum to gauge public support of sales taxes or vehicle-registration fees paying for transit.
“I would say it’s very appropriate that this vote is happening today,” Vos said Thursday of the RTA legislation, “on April fools.”