It's a good problem to have, says Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, reflecting on the city's need to decide quickly where to spend gobs of federal stimulus money headed its way from the federal economic stimulus package.
"There's probably tens of millions of dollars coming to the city," Cieslewicz says. "I've asked each of the managers who have stimulus money coming to them, or who can apply for stimulus money, to put together a memo to me by end of [this] week outlining their suggestions on how the money might be used."
Len Simon, Madison's Washington D.C. lobbyist, has been scouring the voluminous economic stimulus bill signed last week by President Barack Obama, and reporting back details of what's in it for Madison. Among the bigger items: $9.5 million in transit funds, earmarked for new capital spending. The city plans to use the money to order 18 new hybrid buses; these will be delivered in 2010 to replace buses retiring from Madison Metro's aging fleet.
The buses, which cost about $500,000 each, will join five existing Metro hybrids, added to the fleet in 2007. The hyrbids, says Cieslewicz, have worked out well. They're quiet, emit much less exhaust than regular diesel buses, and get an estimated 20% to 30% better gas mileage.
"As an environmentalist," he says, "18 new hybrid buses is pretty exciting." But he hastens to add that the federal funds cannot be used to avoid bus fare hikes.
"This money can only be spent on capital and new projects and can't supplant existing projects," says Cieslewicz. "It doesn't help on the fare increase."
Cieslewicz included a 50-cent hike in cash bus fares in the city's 2009 budget, to avoid service cuts and make improvements. The city's Transit and Parking Commission initially rejected this increase, then agreed to raise fares by 25 cents, to $1.75.
On Tuesday night the Common Council will consider Cieslewicz's request that it overrule the TPC and raise the cash fare to $2. Opponents, who fear low-income riders would be severely affected by a 33% hike in per-ride costs, insist there are ways to avoid the fare hike.
"There's information coming out of the mayor's office that suggests to me that they're being less than truthful about this," says Susan De Vos, president of the local Madison Area Bus Advocates. "You can't trust that what they say is the whole picture."
Metro recently reported that fixed route ridership rose 6% in 2008, and that revenues were up $500,000. The critics say a fare hike could reverse those trends, with one estimate predicting a 4% ridership decrease for each 10% rise in fares. Madison Metro projects a 1% percent increase in bus riders this year, despite the rise in fares.
"If the mayor were really interested in trying to save the bus system, he'd be willing to have some flexibility about this," says De Vos. "The mayor has made his stand. I'm not sure he wants to do any more political negotiation on this."