A roomful of people who spoke in harmony about the need for more transportation money broke into discord while sharing ideas about how to get it.
Southeast Wisconsin business owners, transportation planners, elected officials and citizen activists gathered Thursday to discuss how the region can rise to the multibillion-dollar challenge of rebuilding highways and developing new public transit systems. Different people prioritized different modes of transportation, such as rail or roads, and favored different ways to pay for them, such as sales taxes or tolls.
If any of these projects are to be successful, people will need to agree on the best way to get more transportation money, said Dan Devine, West Allis mayor who participated in the panel discussion.
“I don’t want to keep throwing analogies out there,” he said, “but it seems like everyone is trying to cook something, but they aren’t putting it on the same plate.”
The debate over new sources of money for transit and highways is split between large and small businesses, Devine said, with small companies opposing a sales tax but larger ones supporting it to pay for transit.
Timothy Peterson, president of Sales Automations Support Inc., New Berlin, said sales taxes, such as those proposed to pay for buses and rail projects, hurt sales at small businesses. Tolls should pay for transportation, he said.
“The best way to address the capital issue,” he said, “is to direct the funding to the people that use the system.”
It’ll take time to get tolls up and running in Wisconsin because they require federal authorization and construction of new tolling stations, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. In the short term, or at least in the next state biennial budget, a gas tax increase should be the user fee of choice, he said.
The different priorities and arguments can be integrated, Thompson said. Any push for a gas tax increase can include legislation expressing the intention to eventually pursue tolls, he said.
“There’s some folks out there that want to set up either-or arguments,” Thompson said, “and, really, that’s not helpful.”
Even though the amount of money to pay for projects is limited, the region must continue to give equal importance to improving all modes of transportation, such as rebuilding the highway system and developing new rail systems, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
“You can’t set a priority and say, ‘This needs to be done. This can wait,’” he said. “It all needs to be done, and that’s part of the challenge.”
Gretchen Schuldt, co-chairwoman of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, said that is a good approach in theory, but the political reality is projects will be pit against each other. The only way to pay for some projects is to eliminate others, said Schuldt, who opposes adding lanes to highways and to the Zoo Interchange.
“I think you pay for it all by not doing it all,” she said. “I think there is a limit to public taxation that people can stand.”
Devine said he does not know how to bring all of the various voices together, but the success of getting any more transportation money may depend on it.
“There seem to be a lot of cars out on the street,” he said, “but they‘re not all going in the same direction, and I think we need to synchronize those efforts.”