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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Transit backers' quest for financing may get results soon

From an article by Larry Sandler and Patrick Marley in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Wisconsin's public transit supporters have their best chance in years to win long-sought funding for buses and proposed commuter trains.

But that's no guarantee they'll get it - or that what they get will pay for everything they want.

Heading into next year's state budget debates, key elements are in place to overhaul transit finance: the passage of a Milwaukee County advisory referendum seeking a local sales tax for transit and other services; growing support from legislators, Gov. Jim Doyle and the business community for buses and KRM Commuter Link trains; a sense of urgency that the cash-strapped Milwaukee County Transit System is running out of time; and a statewide coalition that reaches beyond southeastern Wisconsin into Dane County and the Fox Valley.

Also in place, however, are the same factors that have blocked a solution until now: Conflicting agendas from Milwaukee-area politicians; and fear that voters will punish lawmakers who raise sales taxes.

For years, transit advocates have sought to take buses off the property tax and out of competition with other local services for funding. Sales taxes support most other major U.S. transit systems, but Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and others have opposed new taxes here.

While the issue has been debated, the Milwaukee County bus system has been caught in a cycle of fare increases, service cuts and falling ridership as federal funds dwindle. Without new state or local funding, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the Public Policy Forum have warned that the bus system could face a 35% service cut by 2010.

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