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Transit authority rolls on commuter rail planning (UPDATE)

sdsds (AP File photo)

A Metra commuter rail train leaves a station in a northern Chicago suburb recently. The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority voted Monday to push the KRM commuter rail project forward. The authority will now apply for federal approval to begin the project. (AP File photo)

By Sean Ryan

Planners of the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail Monday gave up on waiting for state approval for transit taxes and chose to apply for federal planning money.

The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority will not get federal construction money for the estimated $232.7 million project without a state law letting local governments raise taxes to pay for transit. But the authority is eligible for planning money and, after delaying the application since January, chose to push ahead without the state law.

Lee Holloway, a member of the Southeastern RTA, said the approach will lead to pointless planning for the rail project.

“Why should we be moving forward if we don’t know what is going to take place?” said Holloway, who is chairman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

The RTA by June 21 will apply for Federal Transit Authority approval to begin engineering the KRM project.

A change in FTA policy means the agency now will consider an application for engineering money. But the project will not get federal construction grants until the state Legislature approves new taxes, such as a sales tax, for buses in the region, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

The Legislature closed its session in April without Assembly or Senate votes on an RTA bill. The Legislature is unlikely to reconvene to discuss an RTA bill until early 2011, after state elections in November, said state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.

Holloway said the Southeastern RTA should not advance the KRM until the Legislature approves a regional transit authority law, but others on the panel said there is no reason to wait. John Antaramian, the city of Kenosha’s representative on the authority, said the KRM planning could goad the Legislature into acting more quickly.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to say I’m not going to take a leadership position because I didn’t get my way,” he said.

If the FTA approves the planning money, the authority’s board will consider enacting a $10 to $11 fee on car rentals in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties. The fee would pay the local share of planning costs.

Holloway said he will oppose enacting a car-rental fee to pay for the project until the state approves a transit tax.

“If it gets to that point,” he said, “and we don’t have the legislation in place, I’m going to fight like hell.”

Karl Ostby, chairman of the Southeastern RTA, said he supports moving the application forward, but the authority must decide in the future whether to levy the car-rental fee.

“Obviously, we’d love to have a perfect world where everything gets resolved quickly,” he said, “and I appreciate Chairman Holloway’s position. But we’re also against a deadline.”

The biennial state budget that created the RTA in June 2009 also set a June 2010 deadline for the authority to apply for federal approval for the KRM planning.

Holloway said the legislative deadline has no meaning after the Legislature did not approve transit taxes.

“They didn’t pass it,” he said, “so they, in turn, put us dead in the water.”

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