By Paul Snyder
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.”