Scott Walker: City Transit Plan is a Non-Starter

The Milwaukee transit plan being pushed by Mayor Tom Barrett includes $107.65 million in new spending - with $52.59 million being spent on a new rail line in downtown Milwaukee.
The plan uses all of the federal $91.5 million and would require a local match of $16.15 million.

Approximately half of the additional spending goes to a new rail system that covers a three-mile area in downtown Milwaukee. In contrast, the transit-dependent populations in the county are not in the downtown area, but in the central and northwestern portions of Milwaukee. The new rail system does not address the needs of these areas.  It is the second coming of the Downtown Connector, which was the second coming of light rail. When are we going to learn?

In addition, possible sources of funding for the local match that are identified by the City of Milwaukee include:

 

·         Park East land sales proceeds: a fixed percentage of these funds are required - by federal guidelines - to be sent to the State DOT and then used on a transportation project in Milwaukee County. The majority of these funds - per an agreement with the state DOT - are already designated for the costs of the demolition of the annex parking structure that was taken down as part of the Marquette Interchange work. Any funding generated by future land sales not already committed to the annex project should go to the bus system.

·         State mass transit aids: Tapping state aid for a new rail based system will only put additional strain on the bus based system. A new system will hurt bus routes in other parts of the city and county.

·         Gas Tax: unlike proposals to use the growth in the existing sales tax collected on vehicle related sales, revenues from the gas tax are based on a fixed per gallon basis.  Revenues from a sales tax can grow without raising the tax. To get $16.15 million would require an increase in the gas tax.

The presentation also raises additional questions: Who will run the system? What will be the criteria for expanding the system and how will it be funded? How would the operating cost be covered when current funding sources cannot keep up with the transit needs we already have in place?

State funds for transit are a fixed sum. Any additional growth would only make the current fiscal situation for the bus system worse.  Ironically, staff from the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and Public Works approached City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works staff some time ago about the idea of a Bus Rapid Transit system pilot. Initially, two routes were discussed, and the city has reservations about using a dedicated lane.  I still hope that we can still use the $91.5 million to improve use of the existing bus system.

I proposed in my State of the County address that the state government take the growth in the current sales tax on motor vehicle-related sales and designate it for mass transit. If enacted, this plan would provide $33.4 million during the 2007/2009 state budget and $103.5 million during the next state budget cycle. Nearly half of that would be available for the Milwaukee County Transit System.

I am calling on the governor and state lawmakers to approve this plan as part of the 2007/2009 state budget. In addition, my appointee to the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) will make a motion supporting this plan at the RTA meeting.

In the past, state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) inserted into the state budget a plan that would eventually move all of the current sales tax on automobile-related sales into the transportation fund. Governor Jim Doyle vetoed that provision, but this new idea should not raise the same concerns because it does not remove existing revenues from current year in the general fund.

In addition, I call for the quasi-public company that runs Milwaukee County Transit to do more to lower its costs. Management positions make considerably more than similar positions in county government and labor contracts are much more generous than the county contracts. Controlling costs must also be a part of saving the bus system.

Finding a stable long-term - and non-tax increase - funding source for the transit system and getting the operators of the system to reduce their costs are the keys to a comprehensive transit strategy for Milwaukee County. Adding an additional rail system that serves only a three-mile radius in downtown Milwaukee will likely lead to a gas tax increase and competes with the bus system for funding and support is not the answer.

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Scott Walker