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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008

Dueling Transit Tax Proposals Are in the Works

Trying to save the bus system and build a commuter rail line

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Just a month after Milwaukee County voters approved an advisory referendum to allow a 1-cent sales tax increase for transit, the parks and property tax relief, a regional transit planning committee also has a sales tax proposal in the works.

Both will try to make their case in Madison, where the governor and state Legislature must approve any sales tax increase.

And both hope that the dueling proposals can be resolved in the next legislative session so that a stable source of funding can be found for local bus systems and, potentially, the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line.

The Milwaukee County Board’s transit committee heard testimony from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority (RTA) last week, and the majority didn’t like what they heard. The Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee voted 6-1 not to accept the RTA’s recommendations to levy a half-cent three-county sales tax to support transit. The RTA had also suggested granting local municipalities the power to create a 0.15% sales tax increase to support public safety initiatives, a request from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and recommended providing oversight and funding for the region’s local bus systems.

Saving the Bus System First

Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan, a member of the transit committee, said he supports expanding transit options in southeastern Wisconsin. But he said the RTA’s plan would boost the fortunes of Racine and Kenosha at the expense of Milwaukee, and allow an unelected board—the seven-member RTA, which encompasses Milwaukee and Kenosha counties, and the eastern portion of Racine County—to have taxing authority with no accountability to voters.

“I don’t want to create another MATC board or SEWRPC board,” Weishan said, referring to the appointed boards for the Milwaukee Area Technical College system and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Weishan said that Milwaukee County voters had spoken on Nov. 4 by recommending a 1-cent sales tax increase to support county services, including the cash-strapped Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS).

Weishan said he prefers to stanch the financial bleeding in the bus system first with a stable funding source—the sales tax—and then concentrate on regional options, such as the KRM line. Weishan said a well-run sales-tax-supported Milwaukee bus system would provide a positive example for the systems in Racine and Kenosha, where local officials are fearful of advocating for a tax increase. “The RTA members would like to characterize Milwaukee as not supporting regional transit,” Weishan said. “But we’ve done everything to promote transit that we can.”

Even better than the two-step approach, Weishan said, would be to put commuter rail in the state’s hands, since it crosses multiple governmental jurisdictions. Then, the state could design and fund the project without having to sort out the conflicting needs of local representatives and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin.

But mass transit powers were taken away from the state when Republicans controlled the state Legislature, even though road building and freeway construction are still in the hands of the state Department of Transportation. The Democrats now control the state Legislature so, in theory, that could change. “It’s disappointing to see that the state isn’t taking the lead now,” Weishan said.

Ironically, state Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi is rumored to be in the running for the top spot at the Federal Railroad Administration, mainly because of Busalacchi’s reputation as a rail advocate. Yet the DOT under his direction has done little to fight for the KRM beyond saying that the region needs commuter rail.

On the Other Hand

RTA Chair Karl Ostby, president of Southport Bank in Kenosha, has a very different take on the solution to the region’s transit woes. Ostby said that the two proposals are not incompatible and that the RTA version would not shortchange Milwaukeeans, since money raised in Milwaukee would stay in Milwaukee.

Ostby said it’s ironic that Milwaukee County Supervisors are balking at the RTA’s sales tax request, since Milwaukee representatives had criticized an earlier proposal to increase the rental car fee because it wouldn’t raise enough funds to support commuter rail and existing bus routes. Greater Milwaukee Committee President Julia Taylor, an RTA member, said the halfcent sales tax would provide enough funds for both the KRM and local bus systems, as Milwaukee officials want.

The RTA abandoned an earlier sales tax proposal when Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s representative on the RTA, George Torres, wouldn’t support it. Taylor said there’s more political support for the sales tax now. “We’ve worked very hard to build support for it locally and at the state level,” she said.

Ostby said Milwaukee’s mixed messages are making the RTA’s mission more difficult. “I kind of chuckle at Milwaukee County,” Ostby said. “This proposal addresses their previous concerns, but yet it’s never good enough.”

He said the county should make saving the bus system its top priority, but that the goal of saving buses and creating regional transit options “are not mutually exclusive.”

Ostby said that it’s difficult to make progress when Milwaukee officials present competing views of transit options and funding mechanisms. A stalemate between Barrett and Walker has threatened $91 million of federal funds from the Milwaukee Connector Study, and the two officials continue to disagree on how best to link city residents to suburban jobs. “It continues to frustrate me that the city and county of Milwaukee seem to have such a hard time agreeing on transit in general,” Ostby said. “I think the sooner that comes in line, a lot more can get accomplished.”

Ostby stressed that a regional approach that links buses and trains, as advocated by the RTA, is the best option for the region’s commuters and businesses. “The question is: Do we want to focus transit based on municipal boundaries, or do we want to focus on transit that helps people commute to their jobs,” Ostby said.

Ostby said the RTA members hope to include their half-cent sales tax proposal in the governor’s budget, which will be released early next year.

Sorting out local funding would help the KRM’s prospects in Washington, since the federal government requires a stable, local source when approving new transit projects.

Kerry Thomas, interim executive director of Transit NOW, said that the conflict between the RTA and the county is mostly due to a “failure to communicate,” and that last week’s meeting, as well as a discussion sponsored by the Public Policy Forum, will help leaders to find common ground. She hopes it will happen soon, so that southeastern Wisconsin can request federal funds for the KRM and take advantage of the economy-stimulating infrastructure projects recently proposed by Presidentelect Barack Obama.

“We’ve come so far,” Thomas said. “But what do people in Washington think when we can’t get our own act together?” Thomas hopes that southeastern Wisconsin residents and businesses contact their elected officials at all levels so that they can make informed decisions about the region’s transportation options.

“They shouldn’t operate in a vacuum,” Thomas said.

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