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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Overcast
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Give trains a chance: Dane County conservatives are wrongly trying to derail transit projects
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Local politics, lately, are kind of like a funhouse mirror. Everything is weirdly distorted.

Take the recent push to force a commuter rail referendum on the November ballot. Advocates say the public must vote on whether to impose a half-cent sales tax for transit purposes. Fair enough, but just one problem:

How can you have a meaningful vote on a plan that doesn't exist yet?

Well, you can't. But that's probably the point. Those advocates -- including my friend the blogger David Blaska -- seem to fear a real referendum on a fully spelled out transit plan. My theory: They're afraid they'll lose. That's why they're pushing advisory referenda in various communities this fall that couldn't be more obscure. Here's the typical wording:

"Shall commuter rail from Middleton to the Town of Burke be funded by up to a half-cent (0.5%) increase in the sales tax?"

As if everybody knows where the town of Burke is. (I don't think so.) But maybe that's the point. Keep everything fuzzy. Be misleading. And you might be able to pull off an amazing sleight-of-hand: Promise the people a vote when you're really denying them a choice.

Absolutely, we should have a referendum on the sales tax increase. Voter oversight is a good thing, and any expansive transit plan needs to be vetted by the public.

In the case of the sales tax hike, the Regional Transit Authority board should explicitly detail how it will spend that half-penny sales tax. Let the voters pass judgment.

But, in what might come as a surprise to anyone who's informed by Blaska's blog (or by Vicki McKenna's radio fulminations), only about a quarter of the $40 million in annual sales tax revenue would go to commuter rail. The rest would be spent on expanded bus service in the RTA district and for park-and-ride lots, says County Board Chair Scott McDonell.

Seems like pertinent information to be included in a transit referendum, don't you think? But that's not how the commuter rail critics play. Sweating the prospect of a full discussion, they're trying to rush the vote.

It's working: So far, a handful of Dane County communities, including Waunakee, Sun Prairie and Cottage Grove, have agreed to put misleading and premature advisory referendum language on their ballots.

At the state level, things are just as bad. Both GOP candidates for governor, Scott Walker and Mark Neumann, are threatening to give back an $810 million federal grant to build a rail connection between Madison and Milwaukee. Among their beefs: an annual operating deficit of $10 million or so.

Folks, in the context of a $62 billion biennial state budget, that $10 million has the weight of a bedbug.

Never mind that Wisconsin historically brings up the rear in garnering federal spending. (In 2007, the gap between our federal tax bill and our federal dollars received was a stunning $5.6 billion.) Still, these Republicans seem to think Wisconsin is better if this money is spent building a train line in Illinois, California or Florida.

Thanks, guys.

It's hard to believe (but important to note) that rail has impeccable Republican credentials in Wisconsin. Rail enjoyed strong support from former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Railroad Commissioner Rod Kreunen at the state level, and former County Board Chair Mike Blaska (David's savvier brother) and former County Executive Jonathan Barry at the county level.

I'm looking at a 1983 Isthmus cover story in which Republican Barry advocates "with a certain eloquent fervor" for a county purchase of all rail lines in Dane County as part of a far-reaching transportation plan that would eventually culminate with this:

"An area-wide transit system linking county rail lines with city buses, [and] a terminal on Lake Monona at Law Park where the bus and train systems would come together...."

Whoa! That's very close to what we're headed for 27 years later, except the train will be the Madison-to-Milwaukee line.

Credit is due. Politicians, their eyes focused on the next election, seldom take the long view. But with rail, several generations of Dane County leaders -- not just Barry and Blaska, but Roberta Leidner, Dick Wagner and now Kathleen Falk -- have made train corridor planning a priority on the premise that rail would eventually experience a rebirth.

That time has finally come. Will it succeed? Hmm, maybe.

There's a nagging suspicion that the wrong site was picked for the train station, and the critics have raised valid questions about usage and costs.

Rail supporters need to be honest about this: The state and the county are rolling the dice. But it strikes me as a worthy bet. Train lines leverage private investment in the way that bus lines never do. Dane County development patterns are highly copasetic for rail service.

Farther afield, the sagging economic conditions of southeastern Wisconsin call out for a rail connection to a great international city like Chicago. Tech booster Tom Still sees an even bigger payoff: a 400-mile "I-Q corridor" connecting a Midwestern "Silicon Valley" stretching from Chicago to the Twin Cities through Milwaukee and Madison.

Liberals can be rightly criticized for understanding the value of everything and the price of nothing. Rail is a case where conservatives understand its price but not its value.

Marc Eisen is the former Isthmus editor.

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