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Milwaukee seeks louder city voice on local RTA board

Sean Ryan
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City of Milwaukee officials want more power than they would get with just one seat on a five-person board that could control public transit spending in the county.

According to a state draft of a regional transit authority bill, Milwaukee County would create a board to levy taxes for public transit projects. The board also would have sole authority to apply for federal money for transit projects, which worries city planners who want to apply for federal money to pay for construction of a streetcar system.

“Would we be at the mercy of the county saying, ‘No, we don’t like your streetcar idea because it competes with the bus?’” said Paul Vornholt, director of the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Division.

That’s not necessarily how transit decisions would play out, said Michael Mayo, Milwaukee County Board supervisor. He said he likes the proposed makeup of the board because the county is responsible for a bus system that serves the area and because any new taxes levied by the board would apply countywide.

Mayo said city and county representatives on the board should be able to compromise.

“If you can work with people,” Mayo said, “you can still get what you want.”

The proposed legislation would set up a system under which southeast Wisconsin governments create local transit authorities to levy taxes to pay for local transit systems. But the bill also would require the local authorities merge within six years of their creation and pool their taxes into a regional authority.

According to the draft bill Gov. Jim Doyle’s office offered to legislators as a starting point, the board controlling the Milwaukee County RTA would comprise one appointee chosen by the Milwaukee mayor, one by the governor and three by the Milwaukee County Board chairperson. A plan approved in the state budget but vetoed by Doyle would have given the city and county two appointees each on a local RTA board.

Aldermen on the city’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee on Monday sided with the argument that the city should have more votes on the board, a position supported by Vornholt on behalf of Mayor Tom Barrett.

In addition to giving the board authority to decide which transit construction projects seek federal money, the bill would let the Milwaukee County RTA shift hotel taxes toward transit and away from the Wisconsin Center District, a taxing authority in charge of the maintenance and management of several publicly used buildings in downtown Milwaukee. Milwaukee Alderman Ashanti Hamilton said he opposes that plan.

“I know it is a very timely subject for people,” Hamilton said of the RTA plan, “and I think Milwaukee has some very specific things that we really need to have.”

The bill also would let the Milwaukee County RTA approve a countywide 0.5 percent sales tax increase to run public transit systems. Barrett, Vornholt said, wants an additional 0.15 percent increase for the city, a goal that becomes more difficult to achieve with the county tax increase. The city will lobby for its increase to be included in the RTA bill before it reaches the Legislature, which Vornholt said will not happen before legislators go on recess in early November.

Hamilton said the bill needs work, but he said he wants to be careful because he supports the idea of local authorities.

“This can be mutually beneficial,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be winner-take-all.”

Related story: Developers wait for direction from Dane County RTA


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