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RTA lobbying increases as lawmakers waver

Paul Snyder
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Supporters of a proposal to create regional transit authorities in Wisconsin worry the governor’s support might not be enough to keep the measure in the state budget.

“Some Senate Democrats have lost their spine on the issue,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin Inc. and a proponent of RTAs throughout the state. “They’re worried they’ll be seen as big spenders if they vote for it and lose elections because of it.

“Now it’s a problem of what happens in the next election versus the long-term transportation needs of this state.”

An RTA is a quasi-government organization with taxing authority for transportation growth. The budget proposal would create RTAs in Dane County and the Fox Valley and increase sales taxes so the Southeastern Wisconsin RTA can pay for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee Commuter Link.

Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, recently voiced opposition to the sales tax increase, which Hiniker said is particularly worrisome because the senator is on the Joint Committee on Finance. The committee will soon vote on the RTA provision.

Lehman was not available for comment before deadline Friday.

Hiniker said Lehman’s opposition proves the RTA proposal is not a lock. The 16-member committee includes four Republicans, one of whom, state Rep. Robin Vos of Racine, is officially opposed to the provision.

The committee can pass a proposal with a simple majority vote.

State Rep. Cory Mason, a Racine Democrat and finance committee member, said he wants the KRM commuter rail to succeed but does not know yet how to make it happen.

“I’m hoping we can find a funding source that’s politically viable,” he said.

It is that kind of talk that should concern KRM proponents, said Ed Huck, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities.

“If I had to make a prediction, I’d say the RTA in Dane County will happen because both the committee co-chairs are from Madison,” he said. “And, after that, I think the Fox Valley RTA will happen. But after that, anything goes.

“The safest political thing here is for nothing to happen at all. If people are sweating it now, they should be.”
Several groups, including 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Sierra Club, are trying to drum up more local support for the measure.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime, generational opportunity before us here,” Hiniker said. “We need alternatives for $4 and $5 gas when it returns, and transit is it.”

The RTA issue has not created a clear partisan divide.

“I’ve been fascinated by how it’s not lining up politically,” said Karl Ostby, chairman of the Southeastern Wisconsin RTA. “But the fact is the feedback we’re getting from the Federal Transit Administration is that the sales tax is the best way to pay for this thing.”

Hiniker said if enough Wisconsin Democrats oppose the sales tax, the KRM portion of the measure could land on the committee’s cutting-room floor.

“I can’t fault the rationality,” he said. “They’re elected, and I’m not. They have to worry about keeping the job.

But if we miss this opportunity, we’re put at a competitive disadvantage as an entire state.”

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