Proposed changes to the judging of construction grant applications would give commuter rail in southeastern Wisconsin a less obstructed path to federal money.
But rail opponents argue projects such as the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line are not worth the money, regardless of how the Federal Transit Administration ranks grant applications.
“I think that until the day we get our national and our state houses in order, we shouldn’t be taking on expenditures like this,” said Mark Block, Wisconsin director of Americans for Prosperity, a government spending watchdog group.
The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority within the next two weeks will apply for federal grants to plan the estimated $232.7 million KRM project. Project supporters say the odds of winning a grant are improving because the FTA is rewriting its system for ranking applications.
In the past, the most important judging elements were how much travel time a new rail system would save compared with driving and how much rail would reduce vehicle traffic congestion. That system favored the country’s largest cities, which had the most congestion, and worked against Wisconsin projects such as the KRM, said Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, a coalition of businesses and organizations that support public transit projects.
The FTA is accepting comments until Aug. 2 on how it should weigh commute time savings against such other benefits as new developments that could spring up around a rail system.
Those judging criteria favor the KRM as well as future extensions of a proposed Milwaukee streetcar system, said Jeff Mantes, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Public Works.
“I actually think that the development potential of those types of things should rank higher,” he said.
No matter what the judging criteria, the KRM cannot justify its costs, said Linda Valentine, chairwoman of the town of Salem, which this year adopted a resolution opposing the project. New local taxes through a car-rental fee, which would pay the local share of KRM planning, will drive away businesses, she said.
Furthermore, Valentine said, commuters will not ride the rail often enough to generate a noticeable benefit for employers or workers.
“People are not going to see the benefit of this for a very long time,” she said.
The FTA’s proposed judging changes are an extension of a federal decision in January to make eligible for construction grants the transit projects that ranked low based on congestion and travel time savings. Before that change, the low-ranking projects could apply for planning money but not construction grants.
According to existing federal criteria, the KRM project ranks medium to low based on comparisons between project cost and reduction in travel times.
That means before January, the KRM project was eligible to compete for planning but not construction grants, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
The federal decision to remove that barrier helped clear the way for the RTA to apply for federal grants this month, he said.
Block said he will not get caught up in the intricacies of how a federal agency judges the benefits of transit projects. The real question, he said, is not how one rail project compares with another; it is why the federal government is spending money on rail while roads and other government services are starved.
“It seems to me that when you don’t look at the economic consequences of spending money you don’t have,” he said, “it doesn’t make sense.”