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Road construction drives renewed spending debate (VIDEO)

Cheri McGrath, a member of the Milwaukee County Commission for Disabled Persons, speaks at an RTA rally Tuesday flanked by Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and Michael Rosen, professor of economics at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. (Photo by Sean Ryan)

Cheri McGrath, a member of the Milwaukee County Commission for Disabled Persons, speaks at an RTA rally Tuesday flanked by Lyle Balistreri (from left), president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council; Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee; and Michael Rosen, professor of economics at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. (Photo by Sean Ryan)

By Paul Snyder

Roadwork deserves a share of the money raised by regional transit authorities, according to a lawmaker who argues spending should match the realities of transportation.

“It’s silly to think that 99 percent of the people that use a car to get to work or the store are going to give that up because a transit system gets put into place,” said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine. “More money needs to go into road reconstruction, and, if it were up to me, RTA money could go to either expanding transit or road construction.”

For now, that is not an option. The 2009-11 state budget — which granted authority to create the Dane County, Chippewa Valley and Chequamegon Bay RTAs — requires the money be spent only on bus services or, possibly, commuter rail. That budget also modified the southeastern Wisconsin RTA, which follows the same rules.

That’s the way it should be, said state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. She is sponsoring a bill to create a La Crosse County RTA. The bill is scheduled for a Thursday public hearing.

“The original intention was to use that money for expanded transit service,” she said, “and not for municipal aid.”

But Dennis Osgood, commissioner of the La Crosse County Highway Department, said the county last year borrowed roughly $1.5 million for county road projects in 2010. Osgood said there are no cost projections for the total amount of work needed, but $1.5 million buys about seven miles’ worth of road reconstruction. La Crosse County has about 285 miles to maintain.

Counties, municipalities and towns rely primarily on federal and state aid, along with tax increases, to finance road construction. However, state-imposed levy limits leave local governments unable to do all of the necessary work, Osgood said.

“So anytime we can get new resources, we should go after them,” he said. “We definitely want to be in on any discussions La Crosse County has about creating an RTA.”

Now is the time for lawmakers to discuss how that money is spent, Vos said. In addition to the hearing for the La Crosse County bill, the Assembly Committee on Transportation on Thursday will hear bills that would create a Fox Cities RTA, give all local governments the right to create RTAs and update the southeastern Wisconsin RTA.

The problem with divvying up RTA money for road reconstruction, though, is the threat of losing public support, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

“There’s no doubt local governments are in a bind for transportation money,” he said. “But dedicated transit funding is not a bad thing. RTAs rely on public buy-in and trust, and if the lines become blurred as to where money is going, you lose that.”

By the same token, Dane County has lost one option for boosting its road spending.

If Dane County voters approve a half-cent sales tax increase and it generates the predicted $40 million annually, all the money goes to expanded bus service or development of commuter rail, said Dave Merritt, chief of policy and program development for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

“We lobbied hard to say we should be able to spend that money on roads,” he said. “But our RTA board can’t override enabling legislation.”

It should be an option, Vos said.

“I’m not opposed to bus systems and providing service in urban areas where people don’t have cars,” he said. “But a county should be able to look at the money it’s bringing in and decide whether it wants to prioritize fixing a county road or another subsidized bus route.”

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