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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Death by a Thousand Cuts

How will the Milwaukee bus system survive Doyle’s vetoes?

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With a few select vetoes in the state budget and an explanation many are still trying to understand, Gov. Jim Doyle may have signed the death certificate for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS).

Last Monday, in a move that shocked many who were involved in the push to secure dedicated funding for the local bus system, Doyle vetoed a half-cent sales tax for local bus service while preserving a framework to create a Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line. “This veto means residents and businesses that depend on Milwaukee County buses are now in serious jeopardy,” said Milwaukee County Board Chair Lee Holloway.

Doyle’s veto represents a rejection of the will of the majority of Milwaukee County voters, who approved an advisory referendum last November to raise the sales tax 1% to provide dedicated funding for transit, parks, cultural assets and emergency services while providing property tax relief. That more comprehensive plan was included in the state Senate’s version of the budget, but ultimately did not make it to the governor’s desk.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Christopher Larson, a member of the Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee, said the impact of the veto would hit the cash-strapped MCTS within the next year. “If there’s no influx of funds from the state or the federal government, then we will start to pare down the system in the middle of the next year,” Larson said. “We would lose about a third of the system very quickly. Buses aren’t going to run as frequently and they will be even more full. And fares will go even higher.”

According to testimony taken last week about next year’s budget, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker may be considering ending a few bus routes, shortening bus service and terminating the Freeway Flyer service from the suburbs. Bus transfers could soon cost 25 cents as well.

In addition to needing a steady stream of funds for operations, Larson said MCTS needs to replace 155 buses during the next three years. Federal stimulus funding will provide enough resources to replace 40 to 45 of them.

Making Sense of the Veto

Transit advocates are trying to make sense of Doyle’s veto message, which stressed regional cooperation on commuter rail over a dedicated funding source for Milwaukee’s bus system. Doyle also vetoed an increase of the rental car fee to cover Racine and Kenosha’s bus systems, though the rental car fee could be used to help get the KRM commuter rail line off the ground.

“His objection to the Milwaukee County stand-alone system is that it just wasn’t following the model of a regional plan,” said Lee Sensenbrenner, spokesman for Doyle. “It was getting off on the wrong track.”

Doyle’s original budget proposal would have required the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority to advance the KRM commuter rail line, which would be funded by a half-cent sales tax “within the system to fund transit activities.” That transit authority would have operated or overseen bus systems within the three-county area.

His final budget action preserved a three-county RTA focused on getting federal approval for the KRM, but did away with support for local bus systems.

Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, said that Doyle’s veto doesn’t mean that the governor is turning his back on local bus systems. “The governor expressed clearly that it’s not that he doesn’t want dedicated funding for buses,” Thomas said. “He was saying that we need all three wrapped in a regional solution versus having two entities.”

Thomas said a strong funding source for local bus systems would strengthen the KRM’s application for the New Starts grant program of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is due in September. “I think regional coordination is really important when we talk about how to get people around efficiently and effectively,” Thomas said. “People have to be able to move seamlessly.”

Supervisor Larson said the FTA wouldn’t approve a commuter rail application without a strong bus system. “Otherwise it won’t work,” Larson said.

Can the System Be Saved?

So even though some form of a sales tax for Milwaukee County transit had the support of the governor, both houses of the Legislature, and Milwaukee voters and businesses, funding for the bus system didn’t survive the budget process.

Thomas and Larson agreed that more conversations at the regional and state levels need to happen to create solutions to the funding problem for local transit systems.

Larson said the best outcome would be Legislature-approved enabling legislation that would allow Milwaukee County to raise the sales tax to cover parks, transit and other services. He said that money couldn’t be siphoned off to support other county services and would help to reduce the property tax levy. He noted that funds from the federal government would also be a boon for the system.

“[Rep.] Gwen Moore has delivered for us in the past,” Larson said.

But he added that Milwaukee stakeholders need to sit down with Doyle to see what the governor would support. “Maybe we need to get the Racine people on board,” Larson said. “Maybe he wants us to work with the Legislature. I think it may be that he wants to pull MCTS into the regional framework.”

Putting pressure on those talks is board chairman Holloway, who has stated that he’ll block development of the KRM until Milwaukee’s bus system is preserved. Holloway appoints two members to the RTA board that oversees the KRM.

“He’s going to be opposing funding for the KRM or any other rail or transit project until the bus system is secured,” said Harold Mester, spokesman for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

Absent from the discussion is Milwaukee County Executive Walker, who opposed putting the sales tax referendum on the November ballot and has consistently failed to provide adequate funding for MCTS. Walker has already begun running for governor and may face Doyle in the November 2010 election, if the governor decides to run for a third term.

“Even though everyone here was so upset and distraught, the one person who didn’t seem to care was Scott Walker,” Larson said. “Despite all of the very real predictions that [MCTS] is going to fail, he shrugged his shoulders and made it seem like it didn’t matter.”

Comment on this article at ExpressMilwaukee.com.