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Court ruling raises questions about state grants for transit, other projects

Milwaukee County buses pass each other at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Fourth Street in Milwaukee in January 2015. A recent state Supreme Court ruling has raised questions about grant money the state recently awarded to the county’s transit system. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County buses pass each other at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Fourth Street in Milwaukee in January 2015. A recent state Supreme Court ruling has raised questions about grant money the state recently awarded to the county’s transit system. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Transportation officials are still trying to ascertain the likely effects of a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that could throw into question grants for new buses in Milwaukee County and a bike and pedestrian trail in Ozaukee County.

The money in question comes from $75 million in grants the Wisconsin Department of Transportation awarded in early March to 152 local transportation projects around the state. Although it was a substantial amount, it was still less than the $90 million that the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature had originally approved for a similar purpose. Gov. Tony Evers used his veto powers to lower the figure, sending $15 million to schools. He also added to the types of projects the grant money could be spent on, making multimodal projects such as transit and bike trails eligible as well.

Evers’ plans were changed on July 10 when the state Supreme Court issued a ruling striking down that particular veto as well two others he had issued during the budget process last summer. Chief Justice Pat Roggensack found that Evers’ actions had “resulted in topics and subject matters that were not found” in the Legislature’s original bill.

WisDOT now finds itself having to decide how the court ruling might affect grants it has already awarded — including $1 million to replace buses in Milwaukee County. The department said Friday that it’s still trying to ascertain the likely consequences.

“WisDOT is reviewing the recent state Supreme Court ruling for any impacts to local projects, including the communities throughout Wisconsin that were awarded Multimodal Local Supplement grants,” said the WisDOT spokeswoman Kristin McHugh in a statement.

Though WisDOT has sent $16.5 million in grants to so-called multimodal projects around the state, only some of those are likely to have been put at risk by the court’s ruling, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. Most of the multimodal projects that have won support blend roadwork with improvements to pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure, for instance, he said.

Milwaukee County’s grant for bus replacement, however, doesn’t include money for road construction. Neither does a $668,483 grant to pay for work to Ozaukee County’s interurban trail.

Kristina Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Milwaukee County Transit System, said the county is waiting for WisDOT’s interpretation of the court’s ruling. Ozaukee County officials didn’t return a message seeking comment by press time Tuesday.

Shortly after the grants were passed as part of the state budget, WisDOT formed a committee to sift through the flood of applications it quickly received. State officials spent months narrowing down which projects should receive money. Ultimately, the department fielded more than 1,600 applications for grants from local officials seeking a total of $1.4 billion. Although state law allows the grants to cover up to 90% of the cost of local projects, state officials reduced that amount to help spread the money around more evenly.

Fedderly said there is a great need for more road money. At the same time, he said it’s poor policy to pay for road work at the expense of other modes of transportation.

“You need to make the best investment in the best situation,” he said. “To pit various modes of transportation against each other is absolutely not the best way to make use of your funds.”

Peter Skopec, director of the transportation policy group WISPRIG, said it’s disappointing that the court’s ruling might result in even less funding for transit.

“This is unfortunate that even the little bit for (multimodal projects) is reverting away and won’t be able to meet those needs,” he said.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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