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Communication key to shaping RTA

Paul Snyder
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Steve Hiniker says a handful of public meetings on a Dane County regional transit authority left county and Madison-area transportation planners with one resounding message: improve communication.

“Communications haven’t been handled as well as they could and there are still a lot of concerns that need to be addressed,” said Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and member of the Transport 2020 Implementation Task Force. “There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there.”

The task force held meetings in Middleton, Stoughton and DeForest during the past two weeks to listen to Dane County residents’ thoughts on an RTA and inform them of what one could ultimately include.

The centerpiece and most controversial aspect of a Dane County RTA would be a push for a commuter rail line running between Middleton and Sun Prairie. The county proposed a half-cent sales tax increase to finance the project and other components of the RTA. The county also promised a referendum to let voters decide on whether to create an RTA.Municipal leaders from other communities not located along the rail line already questioned the project’s value to the county at large and wondered why residents without immediate access to the line should be forced to pay for it.

But David Trowbridge, project manager for the Transport 2020 program, said there is misinformation out there about the project’s overall costs.

Trowbridge said estimates to build the commuter rail line and its stations, buy the vehicle fleet and get the line running come to about $255 million. Annual operating expenses would be about $10 million.

“People said the true cost would be over a billion dollars,” he said. “But having been the one that worked to pull together these figures, I’ve got to stand behind them.”

Even at the actual price, several leaders question the investment.

“(Sun Prairie) might make a nice endpoint,” said Sun Prairie Alderman Hariah Hutkowski. “There would be some benefits in terms of increased traffic for businesses, but, in the long run, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the cost. I think we’ll be subsidizing this thing forever, and it could also lead to more congestion in the city.”

But Sun Prairie Mayor Joe Chase said the problem isn’t the idea of the commuter rail. The problem, he said, is that it’s hasn’t been well thought out. He said the stopping point would be two miles away from Sun Prairie in the town of Burke.

“So once you get to the station, you’re still a bus, taxi or good old walk away from downtown Sun Prairie,” Chase said. “Once drivers in this city get on Highway 151, they’re halfway to Madison, anyway. I think the impacts to business here could be minimal.”

DeForest Village President Jeff Miller said his problem with the RTA is there is no time limit set on the increased tax. The rail line would not run through DeForest.

“It doesn’t thrill me, because it never goes away,” he said of the tax. “They talked about a half-cent sales tax for the jail project. OK, well that served its purpose, but it’s still there. We’re already up to 6 percent (sales tax) in Dane County.”

The county has transportation problems it needs to solve, Miller said, but the county and Transport 2020 made a mistake focusing too much energy on commuter rail.

“(An RTA) is meant to look at all issues,” he said.

Trowbridge said the communication from residents and community leaders would be used to shape the plan for an RTA.

“It’s not like Dane County is not growing,” he said. “If you keep talking about one-lane, piece-by-piece road expansions, you end up with a sprawling landscape. That’s what happens over decades.”

The long-term and regional impacts are two aspects the county and committee need to better explain, Hiniker said.

“There are arguments for improvement even if communities aren’t on the line,” he said. “If Madison doesn’t do as well attracting businesses or research, that impacts other surrounding communities.

“But we have to explain that. To leave it with (these last few meetings) would be a horrible mistake.”

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