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Leaders Express Disappointment, Appreciation on
Loss of Landmark Regional Transit and Jobs Legislation
SE WISCONSIN – The Wisconsin Legislature narrowly missed passing regional transit and jobs legislation (AB-282) last week. The bill would have put control of transit decisions in the hands of local communities by allowing them to vote to establish Regional Transit Authorities and dedicated funding for transit, and in some cases require removal of transit costs from property taxes.
The impacts of inaction on the RTA bill are clear. Transit systems in Metro Milwaukee and the Fox Cities face steep declines in services starting in January 2011, and job creation opportunities will not materialize.
Legislators and advocates who supported the bill earned praise from Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, “I applaud each and every one of those, including many legislators and a broad cross-section of people in the community, who fought for transit legislation. We successfully increased awareness of the ongoing funding struggles of our local transit systems and the benefits of investing in transit, demonstrated the importance and fiscal sense for using a sales tax for transit and removing it from the property tax, and heard the collective appeal from broad spectrum of business, labor, civic community who pushed for the RTA for dedicated funding for transit that is critical to our future.”
Taylor continued, “While many described our efforts at the outset as nearly impossible, we received bipartisan support and made large strides toward a dedicated funding solution for southeastern Wisconsin’s local transit systems. Despite the disappointing outcome and an unworkably tight timeframe, we almost got there. Eventually, we will get there.”
Roger Caron, president, Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce added, “We have missed a huge economic opportunity. By saying “no” to local control of transit, the legislators who opposed this bill have further reduced our ability to lift ourselves economically. We just want the ability for our local elected officials and our citizens to be able to take a vote and make decisions on how to support our transportation system. That’s democracy.”
Labor collaborated with business interests on the RTA bill. Southeastern Wisconsin Building Trades Council President Gary Burns was at the Capital on Thursday and stated, “Legislators who led on the RTA bill deserve our thanks. Labor is suffering unemployment rates as high as 50 percent. We’ve said all along that this RTA bill is an economic game changer. Well, it’s the bottom of the ninth and we needed the legislature to step up to the plate and drive this RTA home,” He elaborated, “Transit is all about jobs and economic development. If we don’t prime the development pump in Wisconsin, no one is going to do it for us.”
The RTA bill would have added to other Regional Transit Authorities that were already enabled in the state budget including RTAs for the Chippewa Valley, Chequamegon Bay, Dane County, and the limited purpose Southeast RTA.
The situation is grave in Milwaukee and in the Fox Cities where the RTA bill would have given communities the ability to prevent the slashing of transit service by up to 35 percent and 25 percent respectively, which is expected to begin in just 7 months.
Research by UW-Milwaukee indicates that 60,000 jobs that will become inaccessible by transit if the funding crisis is not addressed, adding to the 40,500 jobs rendered inaccessible by transit from recent service cuts. The study found that unemployment is expected to climb under the transit cuts. Labor, business, and political leaders stand behind additional data that shows transit investments would create jobs while spurring economic development.
“The MMAC continues to have on its program of work the creation of an RTA that has dedicated funding and looks at transit from a regional perspective,” stated Peter Beitzel, Vice President of Infrastructure and International Business at Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “Transit is an important element in the movement of people to and from jobs. The lack of passing well-crafted RTA legislation is a significant disappointment. The transit systems, especially in Milwaukee County, are in serious financial condition. We need leaders who can negotiate and compromise to provide meaningful transit service.”
Real estate interests have been focused on RTA bill because of the increasing importance of transit in the real estate market. Stewart M. Wangard, president, Wangard Partners, Inc. Wauwatosa, and chairman of the NAIOP transportation committee said, “The legislature lost a good opportunity to provide property tax relief along with improved transit. An RTA would allow consolidation of services, an integrated transit network, and improved transit choices that boost real estate value and economic growth. Now more than ever there is a need for competitive and high quality transit solutions.”
Many who rely on transit to get to work and other critical destinations will feel the impacts in both SE Wisconsin and the Fox Cities. Barbara Beckert, Milwaukee office director, Disability Rights Wisconsin expressed concerns, “The failure to pass the RTA is likely to have dire consequences for people with disabilities in Milwaukee County. Our community is already hurting because of cuts to the current transit system - this increases the likelihood of further cuts to transit, which will result in thousands of people with disabilities and older adults losing their independence and being prisoners in their homes. That is unconscionable.”
Local elected leaders found the loss hard to understand. “I am deeply disappointed with the fact that after overwhelming business, labor and community support for the issue that Wisconsin state representatives did not take a leadership role in making this happen,” said Wauwatosa Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich. “Wauwatosa is in such precarious situation with the Zoo Interchange debacle and the fact that Wauwatosa is the second biggest employer in Milwaukee County, yet people are tied up in dangerous gridlock on the local streets and through the Zoo Interchange. We need action from our representatives that will help transit be the transportation solution we need,” she concluded.
Transit Now Executive Director Kerry Thomas added that across the diversity of RTA advocates, there is strong agreement that the RTA issue is far too important and there has been far too much gained to let it drop. There is renewed commitment to continue fighting for RTAs that will give communities control of decisions on how to support and coordinate their transportation system.
Sheila Cochran, treasurer and CEO of Milwaukee Area Labor Council, summed up what many have expressed: “We are very pleased to see such a board outpouring of support from so many working on behalf of working families. Although the outcome may not have been the most desired, it is clear that issue of quality transportation is of great importance to all of us.”
Cochran voiced frustration at the loss of jobs, “This transit bill would have provided the means to save hundreds of jobs immediately and create thousands of news jobs. We sincerely hope that in the very near future, the crisis of how to properly fund our transit system is resolved. Our region and community depend on it.”