The battle over the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line is as much about the future of development as it is about construction of a railroad.
“We’re against it because of the cost to taxpayers,” said Dennis Kisley, a representative of the Racine Taxpayers Association. “KRM will end up being a nice subsidy to college students attending colleges along the route.”
The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority wants to apply for federal money for the $232.7 million, 33-mile commuter rail service. The RTA wants the federal government to cover $158 million, with the state paying up to $40 million and the local RTA borrowing $40 million.
But there are strings attached to the federal money. It is unlikely to come through if the counties along the line do not beef up local bus systems to better connect to the route.
State Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, sponsored a failed bill that would have let RTAs outside Milwaukee County pay for transit projects with vehicle registration fees, property taxes, hotel taxes or – if approved in a referendum – sales tax increases.
“It’s a divisive issue in Racine County,” Lehman said. “It has more support in the city of Racine than in the suburbs and western areas.”
Lehman said job creation and development are two reasons why he supports the project. He cited a 2007 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study that predicted 71,000 jobs along the corridor and an increase in development and residential units.
“The metropolitan areas near the transit stations will have increased activity, housing, shopping, places to eat,” Lehman said, “all because of that transit development.”
James Smith, Town Board chairman in Somers, a town of 9,500 people between Kenosha and Racine, said developer Jay Hergott of Fettner Development & Construction Co., Northbrook, Ill., contacted the town about building a rail station and retail development connected to an already approved 180-unit residential development.
“We’re 100 percent behind it,” Smith said of KRM. “I can’t believe people aren’t supporting it more with gas prices what they are.”
It is hard to support a project based on erroneous estimates, Kisley said.
“The projections of ridership and economic growth are extremely overstated,” he said. “We don’t have a lack of transportation jobs. What we have is a lack of jobs needing transportation.”
As a former developer, Racine Mayor John Dickert said he experienced an immediate effect when the state Assembly effectively killed the KRM project in 2008. He said he had been working on $40 million worth of developments, only to have the deals fall through because the KRM did not move forward.
“To rebuild a city like Racine, you have to have infrastructure,” Dickert said. “You have to have an effective and efficient transit system.”
But the efficiency isn’t there for KRM, Kisley said. He said all of the major development in Racine County has been west of the city of Racine, meaning the commuter rail line will not help commuters or grow businesses.
“Kenosha has had commuter rail to Chicago for 20-plus years,” Kisley said. “There’s no development there.”
Kisley said his group, along with other taxpayer groups such as the Racine Taxed Enough Already Party, will continue to oppose the project and pressure legislators.
“Who picks up the bill? The taxpayer,” said Kisley. “Putting in a 33-mile track from Kenosha north to Milwaukee is not useful. It’s not a good use of money.”