When it comes to regional transit, is half a loaf better than none?
That's the dilemma KRM and BUS advocates discussed this afternoon. Transit NOW and a panoply of local officials -- both Mayor Tom Friedel and Mayor-elect John Dickert were present -- examined their options in the wake of last week's decision by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to fund Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail with a $16 fee on rental cars --
while providing nothing to aid the city's Belle Urban System bus.
Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, laid out the dilemma in a few words. "We're lucky to have something to build on... but what we have is probably not workable in the state it's in."
The good news is that the KRM measure produced by the JFC near 3 a.m. doesn't require any opt-in: no public referenda or local government decisions to participate. On the other hand, "the funding source could compromise the project" for two reasons: the feds have rejected it in the past, and there are questions about whether it will produce enough revenue.
Chip Brewer quoting from a Wisconsin State Journal editorial, noted, "nothing good happens after midnight." Brewer, SC Johnson director of worldwide governmental relations, sat through the marathon JFC session alongside Thomas and said, "KRM still has a pulse; it's still breathing, but it needs some work." Referring to local legislators' unwillingness to impose a sales tax to fund both KRM and regional bus systems, he said: "If in fact a sales tax is not sellable in Kenosha and Racine Counties, we need to reassure ourselves that the rental car fee is sustainable." The lawmakers did allow a sales tax for regional transit -- buses and rail -- in Milwaukee County.
"There's cause for optimism and for concern. Nobody wanted to get up from the table, as wobbly as it was," he said. Brewer maintains that the rental car tax will produce about $5 million a year, enough to fund all the capital and operating costs needed for KRM ... and that federal authorities who once rejected such funding will approve it now that Milwaukee's bus system has been separated from commuter rail, and will be supported by its own county sales tax.
That's not a position universally held. Ryan Gleason of Community for Change, said, "I don't think a rental car fee will work. The airline industry is not known for its stability, and the first thing companies cut is travel." Some 75% of the funds expected from the three-county rental car fee would be generated by rentals at Milwaukee's Mitchell Airport.
Curtis Garner, executive director of Racine's BUS, built on the afternoon's good news/bad news theme. He is "heartened that we have something; disappointed that funds for the BUS were excluded." He noted that BUS funding has been something of a "shell game going on the past few years," as federal funding goes up a fraction of a percent, while state funding goes down a similar amount. Even with a 1% annual increase in city funding, "costs are rapidly exceeding funding." The BUS provides 1.5 million rides a year, but service cuts and fare increases are "inevitable" by 2011. "I know for sure I'm going to have to make service cuts," he said.
Garner also made the case for something more than just additional buses. The city needs sidewalks, curb cuts, bus shelters, "an entire transit infrastructure," he said, to make itself "pedestrian-friendly."
"If we're going to get a sales tax, we've got to be sure it's an amount that will allow us to build a real transit system in Racine."
Transit NOW decided to form a steering committee to "shore up" relationships with local and state legislators, and try to convince them of public support -- 67% in favor, Dickert estimated -- while realizing there's not much time. Suggestions of holding referenda, or doing polling were well received -- except that they could not be accomplished in the timeline that remains: the state budget is due to be voted on in June, and the federal application for KRM funding must be filed by September.