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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Transit Inches Forward

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When we voted for change in November, we didn’t realize what stupid, long-running political battles we might be able to clear off our books.

One of the most embarrassing was suddenly resolved for the Milwaukee area, thanks to one of those much-pilloried earmarks inserted in the recent government spending bill by Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl and Congressman Dave Obey.

For nearly 20 years, local officials have been fighting over how to spend millions of dollars in federal funds for Milwaukee-area transit, first appropriated back in 1991. Since Milwaukee was one of the few major metropolitan areas without a commuter transit system other than city buses, the only question should have been: How quickly can we spend $289 million to ease freeway traffic and move into the modern age?

Instead, transit became a hot-button issue for local anti-government conservatives. That didn’t have to be.

Anyone who has ridden metropolitan transit systems in major cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., or Chicago knows that transit can be one of the great levelers in a democracy. The same transit system that serves corporate executives and hardcharging yuppies also serves the cooks and waitresses who feed them and the janitors who clean their buildings at night.

Because former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist was a major proponent of light rail, right-wing radio demonized public transit as some kind of liberal plot. After all, it served poor people, didn’t it?

Racism played an unspoken role. The most logical beneficiaries of commuter transit, residents of fast-growing Waukesha County who work in Downtown Milwaukee, opposed any connection they thought could give hordes of Milwaukee blacks access to their community.

Even the change in local leadership to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Scott Walker did little to resolve the standoff over how to spend the federal transit funds that dwindled to $91.5 million over the years. Walker relied on right-wing talk radio for much of his political support. Barrett, frustrated by the lack of cooperation from elsewhere, reduced his plans to a city-only, Downtown trolley loop resembling the system in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Amazingly, that system, as limited as it is, now will become the centerpiece for any hope of a real commuter transit system for the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

Instead of losing $91.5 million in federal transit funds because of years of political inertia, Barrett will receive 60% of the funds, or $54.9 million, for his Downtown rail and Walker will receive 40%, or $36.6 million, to purchase new express buses for the Milwaukee County Transit System.

The dividing of the baby was inserted into the spending bill by Kohl and Obey at Barrett’s request. The local newspaper was caught flat-footed, not even learning of the resolution of one of the area’s longest-running political standoffs until several days after President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

The move by Barrett, Kohl and Obey illustrates why all the political blather out of Washington about eliminating earmarks is just that: political blather.

You can’t take politics out of politics. For nearly two decades, the Milwaukee area had money sitting in Washington that couldn’t be used to benefit its citizens because local politicians were getting too much mileage out of opposing each other to reach any agreement on how to spend it.

It took Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency and the use of congressional earmarks to break the paralysis.

A Starting Point

Barrett can’t create regional commuter transit on his own. But he can start building a system that ultimately could be linked to an expanded regional system whenever political leaders outside of Milwaukee wake up to the benefits for their own citizens.

Meanwhile, Walker has once again put himself on the short end of federal stimulus money coming into Milwaukee. Walker, who outraged members of the County Board by saying he opposed applying for federal stimulus money for his hardpressed county, now is complaining that a bigger share of the federal transit money should have gone into buses.

This is the same Walker who has cut transit routes, raised fares and opposed a sales tax for transit favored by citizens in a referendum. The result has been a loss of riders by the Milwaukee County Transit System at the same time most other transit systems around the country are greatly increasing ridership because of concerns over gas prices.

With increased federal funding of rail from Kenosha and Racine to Milwaukee and between Milwaukee and Madison, the city could be ideally situated to finally become a hub of a real mass transit system.

Who knows? Maybe one day residents out in Waukesha will notice all those commuters speeding by them reading their newspapers and working on their laptops. They might even start asking their leaders why they are being left behind.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.