A state budget amendment that would free up a Dane County regional transit authority’s money for road projects added fuel to an already heated debate.
Even supporters of the original proposal say the inclusion of road money sullies the original idea.
“My initial thought was that it should not be used for roads,” said Senate President Fred Risser, D-Madison.
“We have segregated funds in place for roads, and I thought we didn’t want to add to the sales tax for road purposes.”
Nevertheless, Risser said he will support the amendment if it makes it to the Senate floor for a vote next week.
“I’m not going to argue one point,” he said. “The amendment says it can be used for road projects. It doesn’t mean it will be used for that purpose.”
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk began pushing for road project spending as an option for RTA money after the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance in April approved the creation of a Dane County RTA.
A commuter rail line from Middleton to Sun Prairie would be the centerpiece of an RTA, but Falk has argued improving transportation for the whole county means upgrading roads while also considering rail and bus options.
Assembly Democrats on Wednesday amended the Dane County RTA measure in the budget bill to allow road spending. According to the budget measure, the RTA would get its money from a half-cent sales tax increase.
The initial RTA dispute arose from communities that are not on the route of the proposed rail line. Residents objected to paying higher taxes for a service they said they likely would not use.
The inclusion of road money might make the RTA an easier sell to those communities, but Stoughton Alderman Larry Weiss said it also compromises the original idea. He said he would support the Finance Committee’s original RTA proposal but is undecided about the amended version.
“Road projects have a way of sucking up all the available money,” Weiss said. “I think an RTA is something we should be looking to in the future, but if the goal is to reduce the number of cars out there, the way to achieve it is not to build additional highways.”
For some critics, road money and rail lines have nothing to do with the opposition to an RTA.
“There are definitely roads in need of upgrades and improvement, and I’m OK with using funds generated by an RTA to support it,” said Cottage Grove Village President Scott Norton. “But it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t support a tax increase for an RTA right now.”
Yet Fitchburg Mayor Jay Allen applauded the change, saying the Legislature should give local governments flexibility in choosing how to spend RTA money.
“Saying it might reduce train money is a valid concern,” he said. “But I doubt the county will be required to determine a percentage of what money goes where. If it’s decided that more money goes to roads one year and more to trains the next, (the county) is competent enough to make that decision.”
Ultimately, Risser said, the importance of establishing reliable local transit options in Dane County overrides nitpicking an amendment.
“I’ve been in politics for 50 years,” he said. “We’ve passed tens of thousands of bills. I can’t remember a single one that’s ever been perfect.”