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Money eludes Dane County transit planners

The Dane County Regional Transit Authority is putting together a plan to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to help with regional transit. (Map by Rick Benedict/The Daily Reporter)

The Dane County Regional Transit Authority is putting together a plan to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to help with regional transit. (Map by Rick Benedict/The Daily Reporter)

By Paul Snyder

A half-cent sales tax increase would give Dane County planners the money they need to craft a regional transit strategy.

But the Dane County Regional Transit Authority needs the strategy to persuade voters to hand over the money.

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a conundrum there,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, RTA member and chairman of the Plan for Transit subcommittee. “Basically, we just have to rely on the dedication of a lot of folks.”

Hiniker’s subcommittee is piecing together the RTA’s explanation for why voters should approve the sales tax increase. That pitch, he said, must cover expanding bus service and explaining how the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail line would blend in with proposed commuter rail between Middleton and Sun Prairie.

Hiniker, like the other eight members of the RTA, is a volunteer. He said he spends 15 to 20 hours a week working on transit issues.

“We have to rely heavily on staff to help us put this together,” Hiniker said.

But the RTA does not have money to pay for the help of Madison or Dane County staff members, so their contributions also are voluntary.

The RTA is not starting from scratch, Chairman Dick Wagner said. There is a long-range busing plan and more than a decade’s worth of commuter rail planning from the Transport 2020 committee. The Madison Metropolitan Planning Organization also has drawn up shared taxi service.

The key, Wagner said, is putting it all together, and the recent addition of high-speed rail only complicated the process. A referendum would be doomed unless the RTA can show voters how each element works with the other, he said.

“We have to make sure confusion isn’t there when the referendum goes out,” Wagner said.

Nevertheless, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wants a November referendum.

“I think they can and should be ready by November,” he said. “There really should be no problem. It’s a question of how much detail you need. I don’t think voters need every detail about where every railroad tie will be placed.”

In his state of the city speech Wednesday, Cieslewicz called the RTA “toothless” if it cannot support itself financially.

The half-cent sales tax increase is expected to raise $40 million annually. Hiniker said that would help buy and operate buses for a regional system. He said he does not know if the sales tax could pay for commuter rail line construction because he does not yet know how much the line will cost.

The $40 million, Hiniker said, also could pay for more transit planning.

“We can get down to those next levels of detail,” he said. “Without the money, it’s like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

Other county leaders, including Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Middleton Mayor Kurt Sonnentag and Fitchburg Mayor Jay Allen have questioned Cieslewicz’s call for a November referendum. They said the RTA should wait until it’s ready.

But Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz, an RTA opponent, said she would support a November referendum.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” she said, “because I would like to see this thing go down.”

The RTA is trying to get the information it needs in time for a November referendum, which must be prepared by September, Hiniker said.

“If we don’t do it then, there’s not another general election until 2012,” he said. “We lose two years of transit growth.”

But the outcome is the same if the RTA rushes out a referendum in November and loses, Wagner said.

“There’s still not a plan right now,” he said. “Until there is one, I’m not sure when a referendum is possible.”

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