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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Think You Know John McCain?

Mass transit won’t be an option

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Likely Republican nominee John McCain’s recent rollout of his plan to make the United States
energy-independent— the Lexington Project— included offshore drilling, a $300 million reward for a next-gen car battery, and big handouts to nuclear power and coal companies.

What it did not include was any mention of mass transit as a gas-saving option for Americans. Looking at McCain’s record on mass transit, that omission doesn’t seem to be an oversight. And that doesn’t bode well for local mass transit projects that must tap into federal funds—like the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line or the Milwaukee County Transit System.

McCain is a longtime critic of Amtrak—so much so that he has said that shutting down Amtrak would be a “non-negotiable issue” if he were president.

Although he dislikes Amtrak and would prefer a privatized train system, McCain didn’t even bother to vote on the reauthorization of Amtrak last year, or on a Republican-backed amendment to limit the federal funds allocated to Amtrak.

Going forward, a McCain administration would not bode well for public transit projects, just when Americans are taking buses and trains in record numbers to cut down on their gas consumption.

This summer, McCain called for a gas tax holiday that would have had serious consequences for the nation’s mass transit services. According to the American Public Transportation Association, the gas tax break would have “eliminate[d] $1.4 billion of federal funding for public transportation and severely restrict[ed] the industry’s ability to add and improve transit services for a growing number of Americans.”

Local Projects Would Take a Hit

Locally, the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line could be completely quashed if an anti-transit president were elected.

Supported by the residents of the three counties, as well as local business leaders, KRM is on hold, thanks to disagreement among elected officials regarding a local funding source.

But the KRM also would need an estimated $127 million in federal funds to get up and running. It would have to compete for $100 million of that amount from a federal New Starts program, which solely funds new transit projects.

Kerry Thomas, of the rail advocacy group Transit NOW, said that competition becomes more difficult each year, as more cities want to implement new public transit projects.

An anti-transit McCain administration could make that process even more difficult, or even slash the funds so that no or few new projects could move for ward. Ongoing federal assistance for KRM, an estimated $2.3 million per year, would also be in jeopardy if an anti-rail administration is elected in November.

Likewise, the Milwaukee County Transit System, which operates the county’s buses, could also be threat ened if the federal government decides to fund public transit at less than optimal levels. The troubled system receives 14% of its operating revenue from the federal government.

According to the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum, that federal money is a stop-gap measure used to make up for relatively flat revenues from the state, county and riders. Less money from the feds would mean—you guessed it—higher property taxes, higher fares or less service.

But there is some hope on the horizon. The U.S. House of Representatives just overwhelmingly passed the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008, which authorizes an addi tional $1.7 billion for local transit issues. A whopping $21 million would come to Wisconsin, including $7.6 mil lion for Milwaukee, $723,536 for Racine and $594,902 for Kenosha.

Not surprisingly, two of Wisconsin’s congressmen—Paul Ryan and F. Jim Sensenbrenner—voted against it, while the rest of our state’s delegation supported it. The Senate will take up this bill soon. Will Sen. McCain show up to vote?

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com

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