The federal government will not allot money for construction of the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee Commuter Link project until Wisconsin governments agree to spend more on buses. Some fear that could derail the whole project.
“It’s kind of long and convoluted,” said Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman. “And who knows if this is ever going to get done? There are so many politicians involved.”
The $207.5 million KRM project would create a commuter rail line from Milwaukee to Kenosha.
Although it is moving forward with plans for the project, the Federal Transit Authority said it ultimately will not support the KRM until Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties craft plans for more spending on buses.
The debate over how to best generate that revenue is unresolved.
“If we don’t have a proposal that is strong enough to satisfy the FTA, we are virtually spinning our wheels,” said Racine Mayor John Dickert. “I know it’s a bad pun, but we are killing our wheels.”
The latest state budget approved the use of car-rental fees to pay for the KRM project, but did not give local governments authority to raise taxes or create new fees to pay for buses. Elected officials in southeastern Wisconsin say they expect Gov. Jim Doyle to unveil a bus proposal in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Racine County Board Chairman Peter Hansen said the KRM project should remain on hold.
He said trains are no good unless there are buses to pick up commuters at the stations.
“I think it’s pretty much up to what the governor proposes and whatever the Legislature passes,” Hansen said. “I would think that instead of thinking of (a bus plan) from an aspect of delaying (KRM), killing it, I would say it’s something that’s needed.”
Bosman said Kenosha could pay for buses with a sales tax increase of up to 0.3 percent.
“The only viable long-term solution is the sales tax,” he said, “and for me it works to be able to take the transit system off the property tax, so I think that’s a good selling point for us.”
Dickert also supports a sales tax increase, but Hansen said it is unacceptable for Racine County.
Communities west of Interstate 94 do not use the city of Racine bus system, he said, and should not pay a sales tax to support it. He said multiple sources should be tapped to pay for buses, such as businesses with many employees who would use public transit.
Dickert said he is worried a political scuffle over buses will be the undoing of the KRM, which he sees as indispensable to Racine’s ability to attract new development.
“I need to develop a solid infrastructure and if I can do that, I can go out and get people to locate here,” he said. “If I want to bring in developers, if I want to bring in companies, I have to bring in infrastructure.”