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Dane County RTA board agrees to referendum, but not timeline

By Paul Snyder

The Dane County Regional Transit Authority will hold a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase to generate cash for projects, but it won’t say when.

Until then, the RTA has no money, no staff and will rely on the work of Dane County and Madison staff, the Madison Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Transport 2020 to develop its own plan for expanding transit service in the MPO area.

“I don’t think the lack of a timeline for a referendum is any problem,” said Dick Wagner, the newly appointed chairman of the Dane County RTA board. “There’s a lot of information out there already about the existing transit system, and we’re going to use that to help shape our own discussions.

“We’re not starting with a blank slate.”

The RTA board held its first meeting Thursday and approved a resolution which said that a referendum must pass before the board votes to use a half-cent sales tax increase in the MPO area to finance future transit projects.

Some people said at the meeting the board needed to immediately put a date on the referendum, so the RTA would be better informed by public opinion.

“I think you need to hear what people are saying,” Don Johnson, a self-employed contractor from Blue Mounds, told the board Thursday.

Others, including Fitchburg Mayor Jay Allen and Sun Prairie Mayor Joe Chase, encouraged the board not to set a date on the referendum, so it could instead have a well-developed transit plan before letting voters accept or reject the sales tax increase.

Board members agreed that was the way to go, but it leaves the RTA penniless for the time being.

Dave Merritt, chief of policy and program development for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, said after the meeting that future county and municipal budgets will not set aside money for the RTA.

“That’s never come up,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s any expectation that money be provided by the county.”

Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz, an RTA opponent, said she was not surprised the board passed on setting a date for the referendum. She said they want time to figure out how to plan for commuter rail.

A Transport 2020 plan set up a potential commuter rail line running through Madison from Middleton to the town of Burke. Wagner said the soon-to-be-constructed Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail line will spur discussion about how commuter rail can fit into the picture.

“The question is do we need a regional option and more than just this intercity choice?” he said. “It’s going to be a big part of our discussion, but I have no idea what our final recommendation on commuter rail will be.”

He also said he has no idea when the plan will be ready for a public vote.

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