Transit advocates are pushing state legislators to support a new bill that would let local governments create regional transit authorities.
"This is a very significant policy change," says Gary Goyke, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association. "It may change how people look at transportation issues."
Regional transit authorities are used to run intercity bus or rail systems. They must be created by the state Legislature, which has approved only one, in Milwaukee, with limited taxing ability. Under the bill, any local government in Wisconsin could create a regional transit authority, by resolution or referendum. And to raise funds, the authorities would be able to impose a sales tax of up to half a cent.
Many organizations, including AARP and 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, back the bill. But so far, no legislators have offered to introduce it. Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) helped write the bill, but an aide says the senator hasn't yet decided if he'll support it.
And while Dane County officials like the concept of regional transit authorities, particularly to help pay for a new commuter rail line, they don't like this specific bill.
"One of the difficulties we're having is whether this will really be a regional transit authority," says Scott McDonell, Dane County Board chair. He objects to letting cities create their own authorities without approval from county boards. "It has to be something that works both for the cities and for the counties."
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk doesn't support the bill either, says chief of staff Topf Wells. He warns that cities could use the bill simply to get more tax revenue, rather than create a regional transit system.
"You could literally have different sets of municipalities voting to have regional transit authorities, just so they could get the sales tax," Wells says. "That's crazy."
Others criticize the bill for other reasons.
"I cannot support [the] creation of any new entity that will simply have the specific goal of raising taxes on Wisconsin citizens," says state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine) in a written statement.
Rich Eggleston, spokesman for the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, says the bill doesn't automatically impose a new tax; it simply allows municipalities to levy one if necessary. And he mocks critics like Vos, saying they're reacting out of fear. "Let's just continue to drive cars!" he says sarcastically. "Let's see how many more we can put on the road."
Eggleston notes that Wisconsin is the only state in the Midwest that doesn't allow local governments to create transit authorities. "We're concerned that economic growth in Wisconsin is lacking, because we don't have the transit systems that a lot of other states have," he says. Denver and Minneapolis, for instance, already have regional transit. "It's being done, it's successful."
And with rising gas prices, says Eggleston, "the time has come for energy-efficient transit. There's no point in building new highways until we're down to our last drop of oil."