WisBusiness: Milwaukee-area officials pan finance panel’s transit plan

By David A. Wise


Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee Co. Exec. Scott Walker and two legislators on Wednesday panned a Joint Finance Committee-approved plan for regional transportation authorities.

State Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, said there is a “great amount of consternation about the way the JFC cobbled together the RTA provision.”

“It’s like they put Frankenstein together but used all the bad pieces,” Plale quipped to about 180 people attending a WisPolitics.com/WisBusiness.com forum on the future of southeastern Wisconsin transportation.

The plan is now before majority Assembly Democrats but could get changed during the final weeks of the process making the budget for the next two years.

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Gov. Jim Doyle proposed a sales-tax funded RTA for Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee but instead the JFC created a KRM Authority for those counties funded by a $16 rental-car fee. The JFC carved out a separate Milwaukee County RTA that would have the authority to levy a 1 percent sales tax to pay for transit, parks and EMS services, while directing 15 percent of the tax to the city of Milwaukee.

Stone, R-Greendale, said the rental fee isn’t a stable funding source and the RTA needs to be truly regional.

“I’m disappointed at the current state of the RTA that’s included in the budget and it needs to be changed,” Stone said.

Barrett questioned whether the Federal Transportation Administration would consider a car rental fee an adequate funding source for KRM commuter rail, but said it might be viable if a stable funding source is identified for local buses.

“It’s very much a work in progress,” Barrett said.

Walker took issue with the KRM being funded in “untenable way” in order to deal with Racine’s opposition to a sales tax. He also called it “an absolute mess” that leaders with Republican ties are denied appointment authority on the KRM and the Milwaukee County RTA.

“We need to be making decisions that affect long-term transportation needs based on the needs of the future, not on the politics of today,” Walker said.

Barrett also railed against politicians who fail to be straight with voters and encourage them to think they can have it both ways when it comes to funding transportation needs.

Barrett said the state’s current gas tax is insufficient to cover the costs of more than $4 billion in southeast Wisconsin highway projects underway or being planned.

“If we’re serious here about the future of this state, and not bankrupting this state, this is the time to say ‘these are the transportation projects that are important to this state and this is how I will pay for them,’” Barrett said.

The topic came up during a question-and-answer period when an audience member said he hoped voters would get a chance to weigh in on funding for KRM.

Barrett replied that the same should then apply to highways.

“If we’re going to start voting, let’s start voting on highway expansions as well,” Barrett said.

Barrett said he sees two standards, one for mass transportation where there is a call for binding referendums and public input, and another for highways where billions of dollars are spent without an identified funding source.

“That to me is the hypocrisy we’re dealing with when it comes to transportation spending in the state of Wisconsin,” Barrett said.

Walker said that if a new funding source were to be approved for transportation it should first go before voters.

“I do think its reasonable that if you have a new tax you do have a vote,” Walker said.

The roughly hour-long discussion touched on all facets of transportation in the region, including the future of General Mitchell International Airport, the Milwaukee harbor, local mass-transit, and high-speed and commuter rail.

Sponsors for the event included HNTB, UW-Milwaukee, Wisconsin Urban & Rural Transit Association, and Midwest Airlines.

Organizers included MMAC, Discovery World, WisPolitics.com/WisBusiness.com, and UW-Milwaukee.