Dane County’s plan for a regional transit authority bleeds a little more support with every question directed at how many local jobs a commuter-rail project would provide.
“You figure with a $250 million rail project, there would be a lot of jobs pumped into the local economy,” said David Trowbridge, project manager for the county’s Transport 2020 program, which is examining commuter rail. “But at this point, I have no idea if there are companies here that put in track upgrades or build railroads.”
Planners could get that information from an economic impact analysis, Trowbridge said, but he has not heard if the county or the city of Madison is planning an analysis or if an independent study will be requested. Transport 2020’s preliminary plans for a commuter rail show the project built approximately between Sun Prairie and Middleton.
The National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association lists only three Wisconsin firms of more than 200 national railroad contractors. None of the companies are based in the Dane County region.
But Ed Webb, vice president of Menomonee Falls-based Volkmann Railroad Builders Inc., said that does not mean Dane County firms would be shut out of building a commuter rail.
“There’s engineering, grading, bridge work,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do on that kind of project.”
But the project needs approval before contractors start considering work.
After Gov. Jim Doyle signed the state budget, which authorized the creation of a Dane County RTA, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the county could put the RTA question to voters in fall 2010.
Communities that would not be on the rail line have strongly opposed a Dane County RTA, which would raise money for the commuter rail. Residents in outlying communities argue they should not be forced to pay a half-cent sales tax increase for a project they likely would not use.
To make the project more amenable to voters throughout the county, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, added amendments to the state budget letting RTA money be used for county road projects and requiring a binding referendum to create the RTA.
Doyle vetoed both amendments.
Despite the vetoes, Erpenbach on Tuesday said he expects Cieslewicz and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk to treat the results of a nonbinding RTA referendum as if they were binding.
“I would be shocked if the county said ‘no,’ and they said, ‘Let’s put it together anyway,’” Erpenbach said.
“But the problem with a nonbinding referendum is you never know who’s going to be in office later.”
Had roads remained part of the RTA package, Erpenbach said, some jobs could have been guaranteed for Dane County road builders. But he said he does not know where railroad builders would come from.
Caron Kloser, an environmental planner with the Madison office of HNTB Corp., said her company would be interested in pursuing a commuter-rail project. HNTB handles planning and construction engineering work and has worked on transit projects in Seattle, Santa Fe, N.M., and San Jose, Calif.
Interest is fine, Trowbridge said, but answers are more important. An economic impact analysis, he said, will provide those answers.
“If leaders in the community are going to move forward with this, they need to let people know there can be a lot of benefits,” he said. “Right now, it’s not clear who would be constructing this.”