Without successful bus systems in southeast Wisconsin, there can be no Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line.
Without a bill giving local governments in southeast Wisconsin a menu of options for raising transit money, the bus systems will struggle to succeed.
Wisconsin lawmakers on Tuesday introduced that bill and threw a lifeline to the KRM project. If the bill becomes law, it will be up to local leaders to decide what to do with the opportunity.
“This isn’t a snap of the fingers and it’s done kind of thing,” said state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, who is sponsoring the bill. “This is going to take time.”
Lehman and four other Wisconsin lawmakers, with the support of Gov. Jim Doyle, are seeking co-sponsors for the bill that would authorize governments in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Washington, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties to create interim regional transit authorities. The bill would let the RTAs outside of Milwaukee County finance transit with vehicle registration fees, property taxes, hotel taxes or — if approved in a referendum — sales tax increases.
Milwaukee County voters in November 2008 approved a referendum for a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transit. If the bill becomes law, Milwaukee County will put the sales tax increase into effect, said Milwaukee County Supervisor Chris Larson.
The KRM project is estimated to cost more than $200 million, and Larson said federal money will be vital for construction. Milwaukee County leaders, he said, expect to use the boost from the sales tax increase to finance KRM planning and administration.
“And our first step is going to be bringing the bus system up to date,” he said.
While Milwaukee County prepares for the sales tax, other local governments still must decide how to raise transit money.
“I know there’s still a lot of resistance in Racine County to additional sales tax increases,” Lehman said, “and little interest in western Racine County.”
Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman said he does not know how quickly or even if other governments will follow Milwaukee County’s lead.
“The sales tax is a realistic answer,” he said, “but I’m not sure everyone is on the same wavelength.”
The state wants local governments to find that common wavelength, Lehman said, because before the federal government offers money to help pay for construction of the KRM line, local governments must show they have stable sources of money for bus systems.
Property taxes are the prime means of financing those systems now, but, Bosman said, with state-imposed levy limits prohibiting major tax increases, transit cannot get the attention it needs.
But before local governments can institute taxes or fees, the bill needs to make it through the Legislature. Lehman said with the last Senate floor session scheduled for April, lawmakers are under a tight timeline to get the bill through committees and both houses.
“I know the governor’s satisfied with it,” he said. “And I know we have some support from legislators, but we still have to see how much is out there.”
Both legislative and local debate is likely, said state Rep. Robert Turner, D-Racine, another of the bill’s sponsors. But without the tools to raise money, the ultimate goal of regional cooperation is unlikely.
“We have to reach some kind of compromise,” he said. “This is the way to do it.”