Another Wisconsin rail proposal is dead, forcing millions of dollars to return to various senders as a public transit board begins to dissolve.
The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority on Monday initiated the process of disbursing its $1.2 million in assets among three counties. The dissolution of SERTA kills a proposed $200 million, 33-mile commuter rail line between Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee that had been in planning for more than two years.
SERTA also must return as much as $21.1 million in federal grant money, although the transit authority has requested the Federal Transit Administration let some of that money stay in Wisconsin to help pay for bus service in Milwaukee and its suburbs.
“It’s a day of disappointment when you look at efforts around regional transit,” SERTA member Julia Taylor said. “I’m sorry to see this day come.
“I do think the needs of transit are stronger than ever, more critical than ever, and we’ve got to continue to work and do the best we can to support the transit system we’ve got and, hopefully in the future, be able to come back.”
The Legislature created SERTA in July 2009 to oversee the development of commuter rail service in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties. But Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature included a provision in the 2011-13 state budget that forced SERTA to disband.
Rather than issue a futile protest against the budget, SERTA members agreed to dissolve the entity and withdraw an application submitted to the FTA requesting permission to initiate preliminary engineering for the commuter line.
The decision, though, came begrudgingly, as SERTA members said they were afraid their acquiescence would be akin to support for Walker and the Legislature’s decision.
“I don’t want to seem like we’re voting in favor of this,” said Chris Layden, a member of the transit board.
But Kenneth Yunker, SERTA’s executive director, said the organization had no power to continue its bid for a commuter rail line, and there was no similar entity in place to pick up the effort.
“It’s very easy for the Federal Transit Administration to deny it,” Yunker said. “My sense is, without the authority, delaying (withdrawal of the application) is not facing the reality of it. The reality is: If this does get rekindled, it would probably require a different authority in place.”
SERTA, Yunker said, also has no ability to challenge the Legislature’s terms for transferring assets. Fifty percent of the organization’s $1.2 million will go to Milwaukee County, while Racine and Kenosha counties will receive 25 percent apiece.
Representatives from Milwaukee County argued it had supplied most of SERTA’s money.
Still, Lee Holloway, chairman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and a member of SERTA, said the transit authority was better off accepting the state’s decision than holding a symbolic vote in opposition.
“There are still some legislators who are still in favor of this, so I think that if we close this out, we might be able to get them to support us in the near future,” Holloway said. “I think bucking the system now when the votes (at the state level oppose commuter rail) would be making a mistake.”
But St. Francis Mayor Al Richards, a commuter rail advocate, said he wasn’t optimistic a similar proposal soon would be back on the table.
“I will not assume it,” Richards said, adding, “Madison’s sort of weird sometimes.”
SERTA Chairman Karl Ostby said Wisconsin almost certainly would lose a $15 million FTA grant set aside for commuter rail, but, he added, there’s a “reasonable shot” at keeping a $6.1 million grant for buses.
As for rail, though, Holloway said it’s another missed opportunity for Wisconsin.
“I was really disappointed when the governor turned down $810 million (for high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee),” Holloway said. “I think we’ll never get that opportunity again.
“Things have bypassed us.”