Local supporters of the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail project are divided as Milwaukee County officials try to delay project engineering.
The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority within a week will apply for federal approval to begin engineering the estimated $232.7 million rail project. But Milwaukee County RTA representatives are asking federal officials to deny the application.
“Why are you going to waste money for engineering if you don’t have an operating source?” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Michael Mayo, an RTA member opposing the application.
Mayo and Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway last month were the only two members of the RTA board to oppose asking the Federal Transit Administration to approve the KRM project engineering.
They opposed it because the Wisconsin Legislature has not yet passed a law that would let the RTA raise a half-cent sales tax to pay for local public transit, including the Milwaukee County bus system.
Mayo said the KRM should not move forward until the county’s budget-strapped bus system is supported by a local sales tax. The sales tax also likely would pay for the KRM’s operating costs, he said, and prevent the KRM rail line from competing with the local bus system for transit operating money.
“I don’t want to really submarine them,” he said of the KRM supporters. “But I want them to put it on hold.”
Karl Ostby, RTA chairman, said Milwaukee County’s opposition is not necessarily the death of the project because the fight is over support for buses rather than whether the KRM is worthy. Federal officials are likely to take that into consideration, he said.
“I think, naturally, most people would say our best application is if you have unanimity from the total board,” he said. “Hopefully, they would look a little bit further and see the reason.”
The federal approval for the KRM application would let the RTA use up to $6 million set aside by Congress to pay for 80 percent of the engineering costs, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. It also would make the project eligible to apply for federal construction money, he said.
Yunker said a letter from Mayo and Holloway asking the FTA to reject the application will be included in the information sent to the federal agency. He said he has no idea how the letter will affect the RTA’s chances of gaining federal approval.
Milwaukee County’s opposition is unlikely to hamper the RTA’s overall effort to improve regional transit, including buses, Ostby said.
Mayo said Milwaukee County will not get state action on the sales tax until after the elections this November. Until then, he said, he wants the KRM on ice.
“Milwaukee County could have done their own RTA,” Mayo said. “We really did not have to be married to the SERTA board, and that is really bothering me right now.
“But we decided to bring in Racine County and Kenosha County. We decided to be a team player.”