Sean Ryan and Paul Snyder
The regional transit authority plan that emerged from legislative debate last week ignores Dane County roadwork and threatens the $200 million rail project the proposal was designed to support, according to RTA supporters.
Transit supporters argue the RTA proposal the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance approved Friday will make it difficult to get federal money for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee Commuter Link. The vote also blocked Dane County’s plan to use a sales tax to pay for road projects and transit.
The question becomes whether transit organizations should accept less than they requested, said Kristi Luzar, program manager for the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin Inc., Milwaukee.
“We’re still discussing that,” Luzar said. “It’s sort of like a mixed bag. You don’t want to poke the badger.”
The KRM project needs federal money, but the plan approved last week will weaken its ability to compete for the cash, said Karl Ostby, chairman of the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority. The SEWRTA requested authority to levy a half-cent sales tax in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties to pay for the KRM and local buses. But the finance committee instead allowed a $16 car rental fee in the three counties.
The Federal Transit Administration sees a sales tax as a more reliable source of money, Ostby said. So the KRM would have trouble competing for federal grants against other projects drawing from a sales tax, he said.
He said the SEWRTA is considering its options and has not decided whether it will push for changes.
If the finance committee’s plan means the KRM won’t happen, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group Inc., Madison, will push for changes, said advocate Brice Speight.
“Is what they’ve done viable for KRM?” he said. “I don’t have a definite idea to that yet.”
But Dane County, which lobbied for inclusion of road projects in an RTA, will push for changes if the committee’s plan goes to the Legislature, said Topf Wells, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk’s chief of staff. The county wanted the RTA’s sales tax to pay for roads.
“Kathleen is appreciative of the action the committee took,” Wells said. “But as it stands right now, the money would only go toward mass transit. So commuter rail, buses and paratransit would benefit. We’ve believed for a long time that Dane County roads need to be included, too.”
Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for Gov. Jim Doyle, said the governor has not committed to supporting or challenging the changes the finance committee made to his original proposal.
“There’s still a lot of budget to be worked out,” she said. “But he still thinks his plan is the better plan.”
State Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he will be surprised if the finance committee’s plan makes it to the Legislature.
“If they try to keep it intact, there’s no way it’s going to happen,” he said. “Revenue streams have not been figured out. Governance has not been figured out. There are huge problems with it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole thing falls apart.
“I think some people got caught up in the chance to get something done that has been very controversial for a long time. But the question is still: What’s the statewide impact? How do you develop something for one part of the state and not the rest?”
Fitzgerald said the finance committee should revisit RTAs instead of sending the budget to the floor with so many questions.
Still, RTA supporters are much better off this year than two years ago, when RTAs were left out of the budget, Luzar said.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s not exactly what we were going for either,” she said. “So how far do you go down that road? Because then you might end up with nothing.”