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Rail planning stalled at the station

By Sean Ryan

Timing and money are confusing the board in charge of building the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail.

For the project to begin, the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority needs the state to approve new legislation and the federal government to approve grants for commuter rail construction. Without a state law letting local governments create new taxes to pay for existing bus systems, the federal government will not award money to build a new rail system.

But RTA directors do not know if or when the state will pass the taxing law and, by extension, do not know when to apply for the federal money.

That uncertainty is prompting RTA debate over when to trigger a car rental fee increase that would pay for KRM project planning.

“It is a little bit open and flexible,” said Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit Now, also known as the Southeastern Wisconsin Coalition for Transit. “And I think that’s probably why there is a little bit of confusion.”

The KRM project will cost an estimated $230 million, and the majority of the construction money will come from the federal government. The RTA board, which will meet Monday, has until July to apply for federal grants for the KRM, according to the state law that created the RTA.

Even though the fate of the application hinges on approval of the taxing law for buses, Thomas said, the grant request can be sent in as soon as it is ready.

“It’d be nice to see it go forward and for us to take advantage of the time that we have,” she said. “But it’s not one of the biggest issues on our plate right now.”

A draft grant application for the KRM might be complete in time for Monday’s meeting, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. The commission is providing planning services for the RTA.

“It is really up to the RTA board as to when they want to submit the application,” he said, “and even whether they want to submit the application.”

The RTA board has not decided if it should increase the car rental fee now to pay for planning and engineering or wait until the state enacts the law and the federal government hands over the money. The board voted 5-4 in December to oppose immediately levying a $2 fee on car rentals in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties.

Michael Mayo, a member of the RTA board who voted against the fee, said there are too many questions to start taxing car rentals now. State legislators still are hashing through various draft bills that would authorize new local taxes, such as a sales tax increase, to pay for local bus systems. But nothing has been introduced to the Legislature, said Mayo, a Milwaukee County Board supervisor.

Also, Mayo said, he has not seen the draft of the application for federal grants for the KRM or a budget that would show how the RTA would spend the money from the car rental fee.

“Where’s that money going?” he said. “Are we just going to be taking people’s money and we don’t have a plan for it?”

The question of when or whether to increase the car rental fee is secondary to getting a new state law passed, Thomas said. She said her organization wants something approved this year. But after the Legislature recesses in April, nothing will get passed until after the November elections, she said.

Without the new law, the debate over when to send in applications and whether car rental fees are needed may become moot until later this year or 2011, she said.

“I think there’s a very unknown dynamic with after the election, and clearly it’s going to be very different from the way it is now,” Thomas said. “And I think this is the time to get this done.”

2 comments

  1. And in the meantime — among all the ‘you-first’ committees with their endless coffee and doughnuts and indecision – other metro areas nationwide who do have their acts together are already either planning, building or already operating their own commuter rail systems with federal money they obtained by just having their acts together. (Federal money, may I add, that Wisconsin taxpayers contributed into.)

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