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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

Elections Have Consequences: Mass Transit

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Will Wisconsin continue to rely on cars and freeways or will it finally get serious about launching 21st-century public transit projects.

That depends on who will become governor, since Democratic candidate Tom Barrett and Republican nominee Scott Walker are polar opposites on the issue.

In fact, when the two men were charged with divvying up $91 million in federal funds for local transportation projects, they couldn’t agree on how to spend it. Walker is vehemently anti-rail and only wanted to expand the county’s express bus service, while Barrett wanted a streetcar system. Barrett offered to split the funds in half, but Walker refused. In the end, Congress split the money, with 60% going to the city and 40% to be spent by the county. Seems Walker’s inflexibility cost the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) a few million dollars.

And that bus system is struggling. Since Walker took office, the system has been cut 20%, single-ticket rates have been hiked from $1.50 to $2.25—tying New York as the highest in the nation—and fewer riders are being served. Thirteen routes have been ended completely while 27 routes have been whittled down. In a call with reporters, Supervisor Chris Larson cited a UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development study that estimated that 40,000 jobs have been cut off from the system since 2001, since workers can’t access a bus line when they need to get to and from work.

MCTS got a bit of a reprieve last year, thanks to federal stimulus funds—funds that Walker didn’t want to apply for—that allowed it to purchase new buses to replace those at the end of their life cycle.

On Monday, the federal government granted the county $8.3 million to buy more new buses.

Barrett and Walker also differ on the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line. Barrett’s campaign spokesman Phil Walzak said the candidate supports the project’s concept, but says the local communities need to sort out how it would be implemented and funded, and that local buses should be prioritized in any regional transit authority (RTA).

Walker had once showed lukewarm support for the commuter rail line, but only if it would not be funded by a new sales tax, even though studies show that a sales tax is one of the most reliable funding sources for this kind of system and the federal government favors it as a funding source. Walker’s opposition to a sales tax is so extreme that he tried to block a countywide referendum question on raising the sales tax 1% to fund transit and other county entities while providing property tax relief. But Milwaukee County supervisors overrode Walker’s veto and voters approved the nonbinding referendum in 2008.

Since becoming a candidate for governor, however, Walker now says that he opposes the KRM project altogether. Must have been the midwinter Florida fund-raiser with the Wisconsin road-builders that changed his mind. Julia Taylor, chair of the pro-business Greater Milwaukee Committee, admitted that she was “disappointed” with Walker’s flip-flop.

On high-speed rail, the two candidates are worlds apart. Barrett supports the rail line and the jobs that will be created both through its construction and the development that it will spark. He helped to attract Talgo, a Spanish rail-car manufacturer, to the former Tower Automotive site to launch their American assembly operations. The company has already taken orders for projects in Wisconsin and Oregon.

Walker, on the other hand, has vowed to stop the train, even though it could cost Wisconsin anywhere from $60 million to $300 million that it would have to return to the federal government. But here, again, Walker is changing his tune, because he previously voted for $50 million for a passenger rail line to be constructed between Madison and Milwaukee. But that was back in 1993, when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson had earmarked that money and Walker was a backbencher in the state Assembly. Seems that when a Democratic president proposes the same project, Walker is against it.

Regardless of Walker’s opposition, the federal government will spend the $810 million on high-speed rail—perhaps in another state.

“They will build the Scott Walker Memorial Express line—in Florida,” Walzak said.