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Monday, November 17, 2008

RTA takes a good first step, but more is needed

From an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Cooperation among transit authority board members should be lauded, but many obstacles remain in keeping regional transit on track in southeastern Wisconsin.

After a vote last week to resolve a funding issue for regional mass transit, members of the board of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transportation Authority broke into applause. It was well deserved.

On a 6-1 to vote, members representing the cities and counties of Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee (one from each city and county, plus one appointed by the governor) agreed to ask the Legislature for authority to levy a sales tax of up to 0.5% for mass transit, including a commuter rail line, in the three counties.

Considering the time and effort it took to get this far and the fact that people in the region often have difficulty agreeing on whether Lake Michigan is wet, that's a significant accomplishment.

The board also asked the Legislature to turn the RTA into a permanent agency that would oversee all mass transit in the three counties, creating a coordinated regional mass transit system with seamless bus and commuter rail services. The RTA recommended that any transit sales tax replace property tax funding for public transit in Milwaukee, eastern Racine and Kenosha counties.

The assumption is that the sales tax would raise enough money to replace the property tax support for transit as well as to expand transit systems in Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee and to build and operate a new commuter train line, the KRM Commuter Link, connecting Milwaukee and its southern suburbs to Racine and Kenosha.

The agreement came with two major compromises. The first was to ask the Legislature to also authorize municipalities to enact up to an additional 0.15% sales tax for public safety purposes, again primarily to ease the property tax burden. The second was to exclude the part of Racine County that is west of I-94. Residents there apparently are not convinced that they would benefit from public transit.

We're not particularly moved by either compromise. There is a good argument that public safety and protection of property are services that belong properly on the property tax. Furthermore, including an additional tax on top of the 0.5% transit tax may just confuse the issue for some legislators. As to western Racine County, we think it could benefit indirectly at first and perhaps directly later from mass transit services. Excluding it now is shortsighted.

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