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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Madison Metro can't afford new buses after federal funds dry up
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Metro currently has 208 buses and needs more.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Chuck Kamp thinks discretionary spending has gotten a bad rap.

Madison Metro, where Kamp is general manager, has relied on this funding -- money appropriated by Congress annually that can include earmarks for pet projects -- to buy buses. But in recent years, public opinion has soured on discretionary spending, leaving Metro scrambling to figure out how to buy the buses it needs.

"In the past, these kind of infrastructure investments were not controversial," Kamps says. "I think the bad examples, like the 'bridge to nowhere' in Alaska, hurt."

Wisconsin, which makes up about 2% of the U.S. population, only gets about 1% of the federal transportation dollars, Kamp says. The main way to get federal bus funds is a formula based on a community's population and density. Madison doesn't compete well on that front, even though it has a well-used transit system. This is where discretionary funding helped fill the gaps, with the state's Congressional delegates typically signing a letter in support to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Metro currently has 208 buses and needs more. Early this year, the city signed a contract (PDF) to buy 80 buses over five years from Gillig Manufacturing. Diesel buses cost about $400,000. The feds used to pay for 80%, the city the rest. But those federal funds are no longer coming through, leaving Madison in a bind.

The city managed to find the funds for the first order of 20, but Kamp is uncertain where he'll get money for the rest.

"We're at the tipping point now," he says. "We feel like we're getting through. But after this next order of 20 buses, our future is uncertain."

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