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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mass Transit Takes a Hit in Walker's Budget

Funding is cut just as gas prices hit record highs

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As the price for a gallon of gas hovers around $4, Gov. Scott Walker is working to ensure that Wisconsin residents will rely on cars, not mass transit, to commute to work and travel around the state.

Walker's proposed budget shores up funding for state roads and highways and major freeway reconstruction projects. But Walker's budget isn't so supportive of mass transit and local roads, both of which are subject to cuts and an uncertain financial future. The viability of Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) services such as the Freeway Flyer and late-night routes are on the chopping block once again.

Walker's pro-road transportation budget comes on the heels of his refusal of $810 million in federal funds for high-speed rail and at the same time that legislative Republicans are attempting to terminate regional transit authorities (RTAs) for buses and trains.

Making matters worse, Walker's push to end collective bargaining jeopardizes $46 million of federal transit funds, since the federal government requires that transit systems that currently allow workers to collectively bargain continue to do so as long as they receive federal funding. As they debated the collective bargaining bill, Republicans in the state Assembly refused to support an amendment proposed by Democratic legislators to exempt transit workers from Walker's collective bargaining cuts so that the funding could remain in place.

Taken together, Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, said that Walker's budget proposal is a watershed moment in Wisconsin's transportation system development.

"What we're seeing is a pretty historic shift in priorities from a multi-modal perspective and a more balanced approach to sort of a single-mode approach," Thomas said.

That runs counter to long-term trends that favor mass transit, she argued, due to rising gas prices, our aging population and demand for environmentally sustainable public transportation.

"The question becomes: Is [Walker's] proposal aligned with the realities of our economy and our need to be competitive?" Thomas asked.

Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), questioned whether Walker had presented a budget that had adequately balanced the needs for modern, fully functioning roads and mass transit.

"I would say probably not," Sheehy said.

What's the Plan for Transportation?

Walker proposes to spend about $6 billion of state, federal and bond funds on transportation. Funding for transportation projects—such as state roads and highways—will remain flat, while mass transit and local road funds will take a 10% hit in the next biennium.

Walker's budget would seem to stabilize funding for state road projects. The governor proposes to:

  • Shift 7.5% of the auto-related sales tax, about $35.2 million, into the transportation fund, which currently funds highway construction and repair and mass transit, and eventually increase that amount to 50% of the sales tax collected on auto sales, or about $235 million, in 10 years.
  • Repeal the motor vehicle environmental impact fee, which helps to pay for contaminated land and water cleanup, and instead increase the certificate of title fee $9, from $53 to $62, to pay off transportation revenue bonds. That would generate about $10.5 million per year.
  • Transfer $19.5 million each year from the petroleum inspection fund to the transportation fund.
  • Authorize $115 million in bonding authority for transportation projects to be repaid from the general fund, not the transportation fund.
  • Speed up the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange and commit to re-decking the Hoan Bridge.


Transit Will Take Multiple Hits

While Walker is shoring up funding for state road building and maintenance, he's making transit funding even more vulnerable. The governor wants to:

  • Move mass transit out of the transportation fund and into the general fund, where it has to compete with education, health care and other state services for ever-dwindling dollars.
  • Cut transit funding 10% in 2012 and keep it at that level in 2013. The Milwaukee County Transit System would lose about $7 million next year, equal to about 100,000 hours of bus service. An 8% service reduction or 29% increase in bus fares would be needed to offset that cut.
  • At the same time transit aid is being slashed, Walker is cutting general state aid to local governments in Milwaukee County by as much as 50%.
  • Cap the property tax levy so that local governments cannot make up for the state funding shortfall with property taxes.
  • Require a local binding referendum if an RTA district wants to implement a new tax or fee for transit.
  • In one positive note, the budget would add $4.3 million in state funds for the Milwaukee-Chicago Amtrak line



'Tough Budget'

Reggie Newson, executive assistant for the Wisconsin DOT, told the Shepherd that the governor presented a "tough budget" overall.

But Walker's plan is so controversial that Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb came under heavy criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee earlier this month.

While Gottlieb argued that a modern transportation system is crucial for job growth, state Rep. Dan Meyer (R-Eagle River), who represents the far north-central part of the state, said governments in his district are upset that Walker has cut funds for local transportation aids, which are used for road and bridge repairs. Meyer said logging companies would likely have to deal with temporary weight restrictions on their trucks, since local roads won't be properly maintained.

"The governor made the problem worse," Meyer told Gottlieb.

MMAC's Sheehy said that he disagreed with Walker's decision to make transit funding more vulnerable.

"It's appropriate to fund transit out of the transportation budget," Sheehy said. "It's the same pot. If you don't have transit services, in a sense you have more people on the road, and you increase that cost. So it's appropriate to fund transit out of transportation. I think we would also push back on the cut that transit funding is taking in the context of the overall transportation budget going up."

Transit NOW's Thomas said that the combination of Walker's cuts to transit and other programs will make the upcoming budget cycle even more difficult for local elected officials.

"All of these are coming into a pressure point," Thomas said. "Transit, as important as it is to get people to work and keep people employed—it's not a mandated service. Most of the other things provided by the county are mandated. That leaves transit in a very fragile position."

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