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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Is Scott Walker Killing Off Public Transit?

Transit’s funding is uncertain but road builders win big

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Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed state budget could provide the death knell for public transit systems across the state.

Although he has a $419 million budget surplus that he could use to reinvest in state services, Walker is not restoring the $14 million he cut from transit in his previous budget.

Even worse, Walker’s budget makes long-term changes to the way urban bus systems and road projects are funded, which will make transit more vulnerable in the coming years. And, not surprisingly, Walker will increase the funding that goes to road building.

“It’s very challenging to manage in this environment,” said Greg Seubert, chair of the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association (WURTA) and the transit director for Wausau’s bus system.

 

Bus Riders Will Compete With Teachers and Cops for Funding

If you’re an influential road builder, you’re going to love Walker’s new budget.

Walker plans to increase transportation funding by half a billion dollars to $6.4 billion, which will be used primarily for highway expansion and infrastructure repairs, as well as mega-projects like the $550 million Zoo Interchange reconstruction.

Some of that money will come from the transportation fund, the repository of the gas tax and other vehicle-related fees.

Although a road builder-dominated advisory committee recently recommended raising the gas tax and other fees to pay for new roadways, Walker isn’t raising taxes to fund his projects.

Instead, Walker is borrowing more than half a billion dollars and raiding non-transportation funds to pay for road building. Walker wants to authorize $662 million in new bonding to pay for his mega-projects, about half of which will by repaid by the general fund. Walker is so invested in road building that he has even proposed selling state-owned assets, such as power plants, to pay back the money he will need to borrow for all of the state’s new roads.

“This is an enormous amount of deficit spending,” said Bruce Speight, director of WISPIRG Foundation. “We’re bonding at really high levels. This has a long-term consequence and it’s only going to make things more difficult in the future when we have to pay off the debt.”

In addition to racking up charges on the state’s credit card, Walker is also raiding funds unrelated to transportation to pay for his road building plans. He’s asking to shift $32 million from the petroleum inspection fund, intended to clean up contaminated sites, to the transportation fund. And $23 million from the general fund will be transferred to the transportation fund, thanks to a provision in his previous budget.

But that still won’t cover the costs of Walker’s transportation plan.

Walker wants to remove urban public transit from the transportation fund and put it into the general fund, beginning in July 2014. That would free up $106 million to be used for road building—but it would make transit systems compete with teachers, cops and BadgerCare recipients for dwindling taxpayer dollars.

“He has run out of transportation dollars to pay for transportation projects,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “But rather than deal with reality, which is to cut back on spending or raise transportation taxes—which he doesn’t want to do—instead he socks it to cities and communities around the state.”

Putting it more bluntly, Hiniker added, “He’s paying road builders instead of cops, firemen and teachers.”

 

No RTAs, No Predictability

WURTA’s Seubert said he and other transit operators had hoped that the state would restore the $14 million that had been cut in the previous budget—a tiny amount when compared to the increased funding Walker wants to spend on roadways, but a huge sum of money for struggling bus systems statewide.

Seubert is worried about the long-term sustainability of Wisconsin’s bus systems, especially since Walker and the Republican-dominated Legislature eliminated regional transit authorities (RTAs) from the state statutes in the previous session. RTAs would have allowed public transit systems to raise funds solely for their own services.

“The shortfall is always in the general fund,” Seubert said. “So I suspect this [Walker’s changes] would make transit funding far less predictable and it will cause transit systems throughout the state to struggle financially. And it will put greater pressure on municipalities to come up with the difference. Municipalities and users.”

That won’t be easy, since Walker has frozen aid to local governments around the state, including funding for local road repairs that commuters use most.

Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) spokeswoman Jackie Janz said that it’s too soon to know what the impact of Walker’s budget will be on local bus riders. But she said the previous budget’s $6.8 million reduction in state aid for Milwaukee County’s bus system certainly didn’t help to avert its chronic funding crisis. In the past 10 years, MCTS has cut more than 22% of its route miles and raised fares 50%. According to an analysis by Joel Rast at the UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, MCTS’s route cuts made 1,700 employers and at least 40,000 jobs inaccessible by transit from 2001-2007.

“These are truly draconian cuts and what we’re left with is transit-dependent populations being cut off from their jobs,” Hiniker said. 

Brendan Conway, spokesman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, said the county would receive $64 million in state aid in Walker’s proposed budget, the same amount that was allocated in the previous state budget. He said Abele is lobbying legislators to restore the funding cuts previously made to transit.

 

Out of Touch

Walker’s preference for road building over public transit seems to be contrary to long-term travel trends in the state.

Both Hiniker and Speight pointed to a Tri-State Transportation Campaign study indicating that although Wisconsin’s population is growing at about half the national average and the average Wisconsinite drove 500 fewer miles in 2010 than in 2004, the state is devoting a higher percentage of its transportation budget to roadway expansion than 39 other states. 

“We’re seeing hundreds of millions of dollars being shoveled into highway expansion projects and we’re seeing transit get level-funded at a time we’re driving less and taking transit more,” Speight said. “This budget just continues the trend of being completely out of touch with what people are doing and what we need for a 21st-century transportation system.”

Walker’s office did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment on his transportation and transit plans.