Madison-area developers, cautious of government’s slow-turning wheels, are waiting for Dane County to set a regional transit course before they buy into the promise of prime real estate.
“Transit lines create value in particular areas, and if you can put a project near one, it’s a huge incentive to build,” said Gary Gorman, president and CEO of Oregon-based Gorman & Co. Inc. “But if you’re going to talk about something that will be tied up in a very long public process, it’s not something I’d want to spend time and resources on until there is a direction.”
Yet the possibility of a Dane County Regional Transit Authority already is spurring communities such as Madison, Sun Prairie, Fitchburg, Verona and Middleton to direct developers toward certain areas to build projects because a bus or train might someday pass by.
That can be a hard sell, said Eric Sundquist, a member of the Madison Plan Commission. When Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. last year proposed an entertainment complex on Madison’s east side, city planners wanted land set aside for bus shelters.
But there was only a possibility that the bus service would pass by the Marcus project, Sundquist said, so the city let the plan move forward without the bus shelters. If there was a firm Dane County RTA established, he said, Madison could have stood firmer.
“It’s pushing off the decision, even though it’s baked into a number of plans already,” Sundquist said. “Is it smart or not? I don’t know.”
Planning now for transit later is not a problem, said Middleton Mayor Kurt Sonnentag and Fitchburg Mayor Jay Allen.
“We’re in this for the long run,” Allen said. “If something is going to be built that the city will one day have to provide service to, I don’t think it’s out of line to make sure developers know we intend to.”
Furthermore, a Dane County RTA is becoming increasingly likely. The county’s Public Works and Transportation Committee and Personnel and Finance Committee held a joint public hearing Monday to discuss the creation of an RTA. Both committees approved the creation, and the Dane County Board of Supervisors likely will vote Nov. 5 to form an RTA governing board.
But an RTA board does not guarantee an RTA plan will follow. The county is proposing a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for a light-rail system or expanded bus service that an RTA could create.
A sales tax referendum likely will be held in April at the earliest. If it fails, Sonnentag said, transit planning may never get off the drawing board.
While they wait, developers might look elsewhere for opportunities.
“If someone’s in the business of buying land and hoping one day it’s developable, then maybe this isn’t an issue,” Gorman said. “But I don’t think many people are doing business like that in this day and age. You can’t tie up your assets in land and not do anything with it.”
But developers do have direction, Allen said. It’s just not as specific as they might like.
“Developers like the term ‘being held hostage’ because they think they have an inherent right to do planning,” he said. “But our plans are put in place, and if a developer is looking to build in our areas, they better do their due diligence and know what we expect.”
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