Dane County could lose RTA support if officials insist on adding road construction money to a regional transit authority.
“It’s bad policy,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “It impacts the ability to propose transit upgrades because then the projects are immediately in a fight with road work for the dollars.”
Hiniker serves on the Transport 2020 Committee — a joint effort among Dane County, the city of Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation — which has been discussing an RTA and commuter rail in Dane County for several years. While he supports transit improvements and using an RTA to pay for it, he said Dane County is taking the wrong approach by trying to get legislative approval for more financial control of a transit authority.
The Joint Committee on Finance last month approved the a Dane County RTA with a half-cent sales tax increase to generate revenue but limited the spending to transit-related projects. The county will continue to lobby for authorization to spend the money on road projects as well, said Topf Wells, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
“It just makes sense,” Wells said. “An RTA is about multimodal transportation. And the point of multimodal transportation is not just limiting the focus to cars, trains or buses, but combining all of them.”
Wells said the county could avoid a battle over the RTA money if there is a cap on what can be spent on road projects.
But Hiniker said getting support for an RTA from a county that’s divided over paying for a commuter rail line to run between Middleton and Sun Prairie amounts to a political move.
“Show me the evidence that says people who oppose the RTA for commuter rail will say OK if they get money for roads,” he said. “Nobody’s said that.”
Sun Prairie Alderman Hariah Hutkowski said road money will not persuade him to change his mind.
“The RTA is just a bad idea all around,” he said. “We don’t need the extra tax burden, and when it comes to roads, it sounds like the county’s just begging for another new revenue source.”
Dane County Board Chairman Scott McDonell said the county is seeking balance.
“Some places that aren’t going to get transit right away would still have to pay for an RTA,” he said. “Whether or not (road money) gets us votes, it’s just the right thing to do.”
It is unlikely the Legislature would drastically change the RTA wording to grant Dane County’s request, said state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale.
“It’s a challenging time for Wisconsin, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But I think moving forward with the RTA language now may be an opportune time because local governments can take advantage of federal incentives relating to transit.”
With the state trying to manage a ballooning budget deficit, however, nothing in the 2007-09 budget proposal can be considered safe, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.
He said he supports RTAs, but leaves it up to local governments to decide how to spend the money.
“And the nice thing about RTAs is that it puts that discussion at the local level,” he said.
But Hiniker said Dane County is walking into a fight if it continues seeking road money for the RTA.
“Roads have the Highway Trust Fund,” he said. “If that money is short, that’s another, separate issue.”