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Referendum could determine relevance of Dane County transit plan

By Paul Snyder
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Dane County’s regional transit authority lacks money, members and timelines.

But there is plenty of skepticism over the way in which the RTA, which will govern transit projects in the Madison metropolitan area, was formed and how the authority will proceed.

“It’s outrageous,” said County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz. “We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially, all for transit and none for roads. It seems like an idea that’s hard-wired for rail, and I just don’t believe there’s agreement for that yet.”

Whatever transit plan — a commuter rail line or increased bus service — the RTA ultimately develops for Dane County, the project will have to be paid for with a half-cent sales tax increase in the Madison area. The RTA would need referendum approval to increase the tax.

Until then, the RTA has no money for initial planning. Dane County has no money budgeted this year or next for an RTA.

RTA members could ask for financial or staff assistance drawing up transit plans, but there are no guarantees the county could help, said Dave Merritt, chief of policy and program development for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

That uncertainty makes it difficult to drum up support for anything RTA-related, even to the point of who will be appointed to the board and when that will happen.

The RTA will be made up of nine appointees: two each from Madison and Dane County; and one each from Gov. Jim Doyle, Fitchburg, Middleton, Sun Prairie and the Dane County Cities and Villages Association.

But Jon Hochkammer, Verona mayor and president of the association, said his organization has not yet taken a position on the RTA.

“We have municipalities on both sides,” he said. “I think in a lot of respects, the cart is before the horse here because there are still questions about how this is being put together.”

Rural residents, Hochkammer said, oppose tax increases for a bus system they never use or a multimillion-dollar commuter rail system they may never use.

But rural residents are not the only people opposed to a rail system tentatively planned to run between Middleton and Sun Prairie. Middleton Mayor Kurt Sonnentag supports the RTA but has said the time is not right for rail.

If the Dane County RTA puts together plans for rail before holding a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase, Bruskewitz said, it creates an immediate uphill battle for approval. Furthermore, she said, if voters reject that referendum, the RTA’s work is over before it starts because there would not be a defined revenue source for planning.

Still, the county is not backing down from the idea.

“We’ll count on their continued work to get it right,” Merritt said of the RTA. “There could be federal funding available. We’ll have to see. A lot of this is going to be their decision. This is a new concept in Wisconsin, and it will take some time to develop.

“But I think the simple fact that Dane County is growing by 60,000 people every 10 years is reason enough for a plan to meet all our needs.”

6 comments

  1. I’ve never seen a referendum for highway-construction proposals, not even massively-expensive and highly-controversial ones.

    But I think the Dane County naysayers might just find that a referendum could backfire and instead issue a voter mandate to quit stalling and join the rest of the nation’s long list of RTAs. That’s what in effect the Milwaukee voters said when they approved their own RTA in a referendum vote recently. As such, the obstructionists in Dane County should be careful what they wish for.

  2. RTA naysayers appear to be hanging on to the status quo.
    The RTA represents a planned response to observed trends projected to result in environmental and economic crises for the region if left unchecked. These observed trends include population growth, air quality warnings, flooding, traffic congestion and urban spraw. More highways to accomodate more cars is not the answer. A well planned mass transit system is essential to the maintenance of stable economic growth and a clean environment.
    Many studies have been conducted to show that rail-based transit systems have advantages that should not be ignored. While initial costs may be high, lifecycle costs, safety, reliability and the perception of permanence offer distinct advantqages. The RTA should not be discouraged from considering commuter rail for the future of Dane County.

  3. The RTA represents a planned response to observed trends. If left unchecked, these trends are projected to result in environmental and economic crises for the region. They include population growth, air quality warnings, flooding, traffic congestion and urban spraw. More highways to accomodate more cars is not the answer. A well planned mass transit system is essential to the maintenance of stable economic growth and a clean environment.
    Many studies have been conducted to show that rail-based transit systems have advantages that should not be ignored. While initial costs may be high, lifecycle costs, safety, reliability and the perception of permanence offer distinct advantqages. The RTA should not be discouraged from considering commuter rail for the future of Dane County

  4. Some un-common common sense on trains

    A commuter train system in Dane County is a horrible waste of taxpayer money. People living here are too spread out for it to work and the population isn’t high enough to sustain they system. What you will end up having is more pollution due to idling cars stopped waiting for the train and the fuel needed to run the train itself. That will far outweigh any reduced car emissions because less than 5% of the population will ride the train. If we want to be serious about mass transit we need to improve the bus system by improving safety at the transfer points, provide more stops, and more regularly clean the buses themselves.

  5. “Rural residents, Hochkammer said, oppose tax increases for a bus system they never use or a multimillion-dollar commuter rail system they may never use.”

    Although this article is fairly clear, it fails to state that the RTA only covers the Metropolitan Planning Area of Madison and only the people in the RTA boundaries are subject to a tax increase IF the referendum is approved. Most of the people who live in rural areas in Dane County (where I grew up) will not see a tax raise.

    That being said, what is so bad about this tax increase? Right now, the Madison Metro is primarily funded through property tax. Meaning, people who visit the state do not pay into the public transit system, other than the fees to ride the bus. Wisconsin’s sales tax has been at 5% for the past twenty-seven years and the increase is to take it from 5% to 5.5%. If a person spends 500 dollars a month on things eligible for sales tax, the half-percent increase is hardly enough to buy a meal. I am a college student and I can afford that.

    If these people who live in rural areas in the MPA of Madison want their areas to stay rural, they should vote for this referendum. More and better public transit in the Madison area will discourage urban sprawl, decrease our reliance on vehicles, decrease our reliance on foreign oil, and decrease urban pollution.

  6. “A commuter train system in Dane County is a horrible waste of taxpayer money. People living here are too spread out for it to work and the population isn’t high enough to sustain they system.”

    Population is not the key indicator of the success of a commuter rail line. A density of employment and activity centers is the primary attractor for rail ridership – and the Isthmus area has that.

    “What you will end up having is more pollution due to idling cars stopped waiting for the train and the fuel needed to run the train itself. That will far outweigh any reduced car emissions because less than 5% of the population will ride the train.”

    This is false. While early versions of T2020 suggested significant crossing-related congestion, the estimates failed to take into account efforts to mitigate the problem via signal re-coordination. Therefore, the congestion report was not included in the final report because the problem was not seen to be significant in light of the mitigation measures.

    “If we want to be serious about mass transit we need to improve the bus system by improving safety at the transfer points, provide more stops, and more regularly clean the buses themselves.”

    Over the last 20 years, most transit system’s ridership has dropped, while commuter rail lines in areas similar to Madison have seen their ridership double. The fact is that commuter rail is more attractive to choice riders than busses are.

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