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Regional transit authority bill revives spending debate

Paul Snyder
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The state Legislature’s newest regional transit authority bill (PDF) stokes an old debate between proponents of economic development and opponents of new taxes.

The bill would let local governments create RTAs, rather than leaving that authority with the Legislature.

RTAs are organizations in specific regions with government backing to levy taxes to generate revenue for transportation growth.

“The time is not right for more taxes —  it’s as simple as that,” said state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and member of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources. The new RTA bill was referred to the committee last week.

The state Legislature’s Special Committee on Regional Transportation Authority worked on the RTA bill for nearly a year, said state Rep. Al Ott, R-Forest Junction, and committee co-chairman. But the timing might still be wrong, Ott said, considering the Joint Committee on Finance just finished an RTA debate, passing two of three RTA-related requests in Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-11 state budget proposal. The finance committee last month approved a Dane County RTA as well as a $16 car rental fee in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties to pay for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee Commuter Link.

The committee killed Doyle’s proposal for an RTA in the Fox Valley, which includes such cities as Appleton, Kaukauna, Menasha and Neenah.

“It is a challenging climate right now,” Ott said. “The tax issue is problematic, as is getting the Legislature to make the distinction between needs and wants. But the need is there for local governments.”

It is the need for economic development opportunities that makes the timing perfect for a new RTA bill, said state Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, the RTA committee’s co-chairwoman.

“We’re so desperate to grow this economy right now,” she said. “The committee would work seven to eight hours a day, and we heard so many reports that light rail and commuter rail projects grow areas and have that big economic payoff.”

RTAs as opposed to the prescriptive creations that were part of Doyle’s budget proposal.Robson also said the bill might be easier to sell because it gives local governments control over creating

That control is needed in the Fox Valley, said Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna.

“You tell me why the JFC would endorse a Dane County RTA with the commuter rail and all the political debates about it between Madison and all those surrounding towns, but not endorse the Fox Valley,” he said.

“They know we’re on the brink of losing our federal operating assistance.”

Metropolitan areas with populations less than 200,000 are eligible to get federal money to operate their bus systems, but the Fox Valley and Green Bay are likely to exceed the limit as soon as next year, said Hanna, who was also a member of the RTA committee.

“The obvious problem is the tax question,” he said. “Nobody I know of is really hip on creating a new tax. But it shifts the responsibility on (local governments). We have to justify what we’re asking for.”

But even Ott said he is not completely sold on some of the questions raised by the bill.

“The bill allows for local referendums to decide whether they should or should not be created,” he said. “But I’m undecided myself whether they should be binding.”

RTA indecision is not a problem for Grothman.

“The people who want it just want more spending,” he said. “I would certainly fight it.”

One comment

  1. What Sen. Grothman neglects to mention is: rather than adding taxes, an RTA would permit the removal of transit from the real-estate tax rolls within its jurisdiction. As one example, Kenosha property owners currently subsidize local transit through annual real-estate taxes of $1.1 million. An RTA would relieve that cost from property owners.

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