Regional planners oppose a Dane County vote that would dictate whether they can consider commuter rail when outlining transit strategies.
“If commuter rail is such a good idea,” said Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz, “then why are they saying no to a referendum about it?”
Bruskewitz is seeking authority from the Dane County Board of Supervisors for the advisory referendum in spring. She said she was prompted to settle the commuter rail debate by people who are upset because they never had a voice when the county last month created a regional transit authority.
Mark Opitz, Middleton’s assistant planning director and a county supervisor, said the referendum is a bad idea. He is one of seven people appointed last week to the RTA’s board.
“We’d be going to referendum with no information of our own or giving voters the opportunity to weigh in on plans,” Opitz said. “If a school board sees a crowding problem in an elementary school, it doesn’t just ask if it should build a new school. It puts together a proposal with data people can understand.”
Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and an appointee to the RTA board, agreed.
“I’m not ready to say we should build commuter rail,” he said, “but I’m not willing to say we wouldn’t.”
None of the seven RTA appointments have been approved, and two more remain to be named. The RTA does not yet have an approved source of money or a support staff.
“First we have to get a charter together,” Hiniker said. “We need to put together a work plan, assess if and when we’re ready to go for the sales tax increase. And even at that point, do we have to hold hearings to get public opinion? There’s a lot of work we need to do.”
Eventually, the Dane County RTA could seek voter approval through a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase in Madison and surrounding areas governed by the RTA. The tax increase would pay for the RTA’s decisions, whether those are to expand bus services or set up commuter rail.
State law does not require a sales tax referendum, there is no date set for one, and, should there be a vote, the outcome would not be binding. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk has said there will be a vote, and county leaders will treat it as they would a binding referendum.
But Bruskewitz said she does not think there will be a vote. She said the table is set for commuter rail, particularly because Falk, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and many of the RTA appointments have publicly supported it.
“Maybe I’m dead wrong,” she said. “But let’s ask the voters.”
Opitz said it makes sense to argue the RTA could save planning time if an April rail referendum fails. But, he said, it would not be an informed decision.
“I would think most people would want all the information they can get — not filtered by people who just don’t want commuter rail,” he said. “If (the sales tax) referendum fails, then we’ll have more work to do. It’s the nature of public policy. These things take time.”
Bruskewitz said the county has spent enough time and money considering its transit options, including those outlined in the Transport 2020 plan. That plan, she said, highlighted the need for expanded bus service.
Rail, she said, has no place.
“I want to kill it,” Bruskewitz said, “right out of the starting gate.”