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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

RTA creation bill fails to see vote in Legislature

A bill that would have allowed for the creation of a permanent regional transit authority in southeastern Wisconsin failed to see a vote in the state Legislature before the legislative session closed Thursday.

The primary reason for forming a permanent RTA in the region is to facilitate the construction of the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee rail line, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine), who opposed the RTA legislation, called the RTA bill “unworkable” in an April 10 opinion piece published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. According to Vos, the bill would have neglected the fledgling bus systems that already exist in southeastern Wisconsin in favor of an expensive new commuter rail system. The legislation would also overburden the region’s taxpayers, Vos said.

“We shouldn’t be asked to support a bill that doesn’t allocate resources where the needs are the greatest, and Wisconsin families shouldn’t be forced to fund an ill-conceived project via another tax increase,” Vos said.

Yunker said an RTA would address the funding crisis in the Milwaukee County Transit System by subsidizing the bus system with a .5 percent sales tax. According to a report from the Public Policy Forum, a non-partisan think tank, MCTS has been cutting into its rainy-day fund to pay for operating costs since 2001. There have also been significant reductions in service and increases in system fares during the past years, Yunker said.

The KRM line is also partially dependent on the economic viability of the bus system. A federal grant would pay for half the capital costs of the initial KRM system, but it is available only if the bus system is economically efficient, Yunker said.

The dropping of this legislation is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga to reform public transportation in southeastern Wisconsin, said Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum and former executive director of the Alliance for Future Transit.

In November 2008, the advisory RTA in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties recommended a permanent RTA be established in its place with a new funding source — a .5 percent sales tax in all three counties.

The state Legislature countered with a two-RTA plan. One focused exclusively with the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line. The other would have been only in Milwaukee County. Doyle passed the commuter rail authority, but he vetoed the Milwaukee County RTA because it wasn’t enough to promote change in the region, Yunker said.

The plan the Legislature was considering was a compromise proposed by Gov. Jim Doyle last September between these two recommendations.

Doyle’s proposal called for three “sub-RTAs,” one in each county, that would eventually merge into one. The .5 percent sales tax increase would be levied on purchases made in Milwaukee County, and the other two counties would have needed to pass their own binding sales tax referendums, Yunker said.

Similar efforts to create an RTA in the 1990s also fizzled at the state level, even after multiple studies concluded one was needed to address transit problems and provide funding for highways, Yunker said.

Despite the failure of the bill in this session, Yunker said the issue will come up again in the future because MCTS’s financial problems won’t go away on their own.

“It can’t be ignored forever,” he said.

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