Consensus on transit in southeastern Wisconsin is the key that could unlock federal grants for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter-rail project.
The region has not found that key, but Gov. Jim Doyle on Tuesday nudged area leaders toward intensifying the search.
“One of the real important criteria that the federal government is looking at,” he said, “is that this is truly a regional transit system.”
Yet progress on the KRM rail line has been hampered by disagreement among Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties over how to join to pay for the project. And the Federal Transit Authority is unlikely to give construction money to the project without a single transit authority governing the three-county region, Doyle said.
Doyle outlined a proposal to break the impasse by letting each county use a separate authority to raise taxes to pay for local transit systems rather than creating a single, regional authority. Doyle’s plan encourages the separate authorities to merge into one in the future.
State Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, said it’s a step toward solving the political gridlock and attracting federal money.
“It shows the federal government that we’re still serious, we’re still talking, we’re still having discussions,” he said. “We may not have the answer, the final answer, but we’re still serious.”
The federal government is reviewing a draft environmental-impact statement for the KRM project, which is estimated to cost more than $200 million. The Federal Transit Authority is accepting comments on the draft until Oct. 5.
Doyle’s plan encourages partnerships to make the KRM plan reality by, ideally, creating a system of incentives to get local communities to agree to join a regional transit authority, said Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee. It gives each county the independence to create a separate system, which should alleviate some concern, he said.
“It’s not one size fits all,” Zepnick said.
Plale and Zepnick said they are unsure whether the federal government will require the three counties’ transit authorities to merge before considering grant applications for the KRM project.
Southeastern Wisconsin is behind the times in creating regional rail and bus systems, said Tom Rave, chairman of the Coalition for Advancing Transit’s steering committee. As Wisconsin considers creating a regional rail system, Chicago is considering plans to renovate its existing rail line, he said.
“The area we’re trying to grow towards and be more like is trying to upgrade what we don’t have,” he said.
However, the Chicago project could put Wisconsin in a competitive position to get a federal grant, Zepnick said. The position would only improve if Chicago becomes the venue for the 2016 Olympics, he said.
Wisconsin has never received a grant from the federal transit program that, in this case, would pay for the KRM project, said Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. That could give Wisconsin a leg up in competing against other states that have received transit grants, she said.