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Transit bill picks up momentum, opponents

By Sean Ryan and Paul Snyder

The volume of opposition to using taxes to pay for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line rose Thursday to match an increase in proposed project borrowing.

A regional transit authority bill headed to the state Assembly now would let borrowing for the KRM project go as high as $250 million, an increase from the $50 million authorized in earlier proposals.

State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, opposes new taxes for the KRM and buses and questioned the need for $250 million in borrowing for an estimated $232.7 million project.

“That’s just a clear example that, before the project is even off the table, they are already preparing for cost escalations,” he said.

The increased borrowing is part of an amendment approved Thursday morning by the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Transportation. The legislation is the latest attempt to let unelected RTA members levy local taxes, such as sales taxes, to pay for transit.

State Rep. Al Ott, R-Forest Junction, who served as the original chairman of a special Legislative committee on RTAs, said he is “extremely disappointed” with the amended bill.

The bill increases the borrowing limit for the Southeastern Wisconsin RTA to raise money for its share of the KRM project construction cost. RTA members estimate federal grants would pay for $158 million of the project, the state would pay up to $40 million, and the local RTA would borrow $40 million.

“We’ve basically outlined what we think the capital costs are,” said Karl Ostby, a board member on the southeast RTA, “and I think they tried to give us a cushion on that.”

The southeast RTA would use a local car-rental fee to pay off the RTA’s debt, which is estimated to cost $3 million a year, Ostby said. The RTA, which can levy a fee of up to $18 per car rental, has not yet approved such a fee, he said, opting instead to wait for the Legislature to approve an RTA bill.

The amended bill also lets RTAs statewide levy a 0.5 cent sales tax increase to pay for buses. The southeast region needs a steady source of bus money to improve the KRM’s odds of competing for federal construction grants, Ostby said.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said it is foolish for the state to let RTAs increase sales taxes.

“It’s just money for buses and trains,” he said. “The single largest problem we have is the out-of-control growth of the public sector squeezing the private sector. I don’t know why we would allow it.”

Vos opposes the local sales tax increase for the RTA and said local politicians in Racine County could counter the tax increase through a local referendum. The Racine County Board on April 13 will consider an advisory referendum to gauge public support of sales taxes or vehicle-registration fees paying for transit.

“I would say it’s very appropriate that this vote is happening today,” Vos said Thursday of the RTA legislation, “on April fools.”


  1. Let’s bypass the rhetoric and take a look at the facts. The KRM Commuter Rail project will need about $40 million for the local share of capital costs, which will be bonded and paid back through SERTA over 20 years, just like many infrastructure projects. The increase in bonding authority was added to SERTA, not so much for KRM, but for the purpose of providing a cushion for RTA expansion as other counties join and in case additional bus and other vehicle purchases are needed. The new RTA legislative proposal will give communities the ability, through a vote of the local governing body and meeting funding criteria, to incorporate local bus systems into SERTA and remove their costs from the property tax levy. That way people have property tax relief and visitors can help pay for our transportation system.

    I wonder if Sen Grothman would suggest shutting down the roads when funding is insufficient — of course not. Is that how to spur job growth that generates revenue for the government budgets–keep people from their jobs, school, and shopping? Why would such a suggestion be made for transit, which has the very same purpose as roads: connecting people to jobs and opportunity, and businesses to workers and customers; and spurring economic growth. The RTA is one of the best economic development and job creation investment opportunities that we have. Let’s keep the facts straight and get the RTA bill passed so we can realize these benefits now–when we need them most. Our transit systems will not survive much longer on the antiquated funding structure we use now. It’s time to become a part of the global economy before it passes us by. To do that we need a good transit system. That requires a dedicated source of transit funding, like virtually every other metropolitan area has.

  2. The article fails to mention that Rep. Ott voted for the substitute amendment, and then for the bill as amended.

  3. Ott did vote for the amendment and bill, but reiterated his disappointment when voting.
    “I support it only because I want to move the bill along,” he said. “I know there are some local governments waiting on this, but I reserve every option to change my mind in the future.”

    Paul Snyder
    The Daily Reporter

  4. Okay, thanks, Paul. For a few moments there some of us might have nourished hopes that Ott might actually be one of those all-too-rare and vanishing free-thinkers who didn’t depend on the same old party-line politics to tell him how to vote … something, say, on the order of Sen. Russ Feingold or the legendary Sen. William Proxmire.

  5. David A. Wessely

    Why is the focus of this discussion a “He said,,; she said”?
    The fact remains more of our tax money is targeted to be spent a railway system connecting Milwaukee to Chicago. Don’t think the dreams of HSR to St.Paul are not based on the segment of train tracks.
    Let’s look at history of this particular set of railroad tracks and answer some questions directly:
    1) Where is “The Milwaukee Road” offices now located
    2) Is the “Soo Line” operating as an independent profitable rail business today?
    independent = no government subsidies
    3)What major employers have openned up within walking distances of any SE Wisconsin train stations.
    4) Are all of the passenger rail car operating at standing room only ?
    5) How many positions of todays railway workers are working overtime because of the amount of passengers currently on the train?

    The answer to these few questions would be interesting reading if ever published in a local newspaper .

  6. David A. Wessely, what’s the point of answering your leading questions?

    Are you saying because trains don’t have people hanging off them and huge lines, that they’re a waste? By that standard, how much traffic is on the freeway at 3:00 am, even 8:00 pm for that matter. We literally have a rush hour, most cities have congestion all day… why are we expanding the freeways?

  7. David A. Wessely

    Ah! Yes !!!
    Did you ever see any business staying open when no customers walk through the front doors. The business need to collect the necessary income when they are open.

    I do not believe the existing railway covers its expenses with todays overhead. How could it possibly the much higher dollar amount atributed to these new costs?

    And, I guess you never saw the Milwaukee area freeways before or after a:
    > Brewer game
    > Bucks game
    > Summerfest (Anyfest) nights
    > 4th of July fireworks

    Oh and one more point. Remember the last few weeks when the zoo interchange was under repair. 310,000 vehicles travel through those roadways DAILY. The need is there to have a path for vehicles to travel.

    Does this proposed railway have similiar usage ?

  8. Mr. Wessely, all your arguments are just mimeographed Scott Walker / tea party twaddle, beginning with your magician’s-misdirection alliteration to no customers walking through the doors and ‘covering expenses’ . Every new rail system in America — and there are many now with more being built and planned — enjoys above-expected patronage. And no public service covers expenses anywhere. Would you propose charging fire victims for firefighters’ visits, or parents only for education, or people who walk in the parks a user fee, or drivers a road fee (roads are heavily supported by income taxes), or library users and airport passengers a user fee? Where would we stop?

    And thank you for emphasizing my point by mentioning the crowded roads. Trains sail right by all that congestion on their own dedicated car-and-truck-free rights-of-way. We need roads, airports, harbors, buses and rail … all five. That’s called balanced transportation.

    Covering expenses

  9. POLL: How would you vote on the proposed advisory transit referendum?
    Journal Times staff | Posted: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 6:00 am
    Should any new tax to support transit or rail services, such as a sales tax or local vehicle registration fee, be permitted in any part of Racine County?
    Yes 59% (339 votes)
    No 41% (238 votes)
    Total Votes: 577
    Daily Reporter SURVEY:

    Do you welcome rail projects to Wisconsin?
    Yes 59% (158 votes)

    No 31% (84 votes)

    High speed, but not regional 4% (10 votes)

    Regional, but not high speed 6% (16 votes)

    Total Votes: 268

  10. Prev Next Normal view To: [email protected]

    Here we are a year later. Scott Walker The Clueless has taken power in Wisconsin and his fake-frugality mask has fallen.

    Only the clueless would cut alternative transportation when gasoline prices are going through the roof. It’s this type of thinking that is behind the slow-death-spirals of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Jersey, Florida and other lost areas which continue building more roads than they can afford to maintain.

    Intransigent ideologue fanatics get to the polls en masse, and it speaks volumes that the majority of voters in these states are too weak-willed to come to the polls.

    When do we get to the point that we are collectively too dumb for democracy? …which is precisely what the critics of our government said would happen when it first started.

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