The Democratic-led body made a series of potentially fatal changes to the version passed by the State Assembly (which is also controlled by Democrats), decisions that place the state at odds with the Federal Transit Authority, which would provide the bulk of the money needed to extend the commuter rail line from Kenosha to Milwaukee with stops in Racine and Caledonia.
In fact, Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, told us, "The Senate version won't be approved by the federal government and will stop KRM in its tracks."
The Senate's budget calls for a $16 rental car tax to pay for commuter rail and a 1 per cent increase in Milwaukee County's sales tax to pay for the county's buses and parks. The Assembly had raised the $16 rental tax approved by the Legislature's Joint Finance committee to $18 and agreed to a 0.65 per cent sales tax for Milwaukee County.
But the Senate took out a key provision that required half of the Milwaukee sales tax increase to be dedicated to mass transit and rejected the Assembly's call for $1 of the rental car tax to help pay for Racine's and Kenosha's buses. (Read the Legislative Fiscal Bureau's comparison of the Senate and Assembly budgets here. The section on transportation begins on Page 90.)
In addition, says Mason, "They literally prohibited Milwaukee County from participating in a southeast county RTA, which the Federal Transit Authority says is absolutely necessary."
The moves could kill KRM because they defy requirements laid out by the FTA. There's a consensus that the Assembly version of the KRM plan, which was based on the Joint Finance version, was acceptable to the federal government, but changes like the ones approved the Senate would be unacceptable. In essence, the Senate is trying to kill KRM with its budget.
The Senate KRM proposal specifically hurts Racine because the city would have benefited from having a portion of the rental car tax supporting the city's bus system, thus helping the city's budget. Bus systems are an important part of commuter rail because trains do little good without solid mass transit to get people to and from the train station.
We called Sen. John Lehman's office Thursday afternoon for comment, but a legislative aide said he was still reviewing the comparison between the Senate and Assembly budgets.
Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, said the Senate version "really diminishes the KRM project. If you put in commuter rail you have to have interconnected buses. The Assembly version offered a solid foundation; what the Senate did is take away some of the things that really worked for Racine and Kenosha. removing the interconnectedness."
She pointed out that Lehman "was very much behind the Assembly version, but there are many more senators in Milwaukee." Still, she offered one bit of optimism: "It's not like the Senate version is what we're stuck with; there's still got to be a conference committee..."
Here's the Fiscal Bureau's comparison of the Senate and Assembly provisions:
Assembly: Rename the KRM Authority, in the Joint Finance substitute amendment, the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA). Specify that SERTA is the only entity in Kenosha, Milwaukee, and Racine counties that could apply to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for federal transit funding assistance. Also, specify that the Milwaukee Transit Authority and operators of any transit system in Kenosha or Racine counties that is eligible to receive state mass transit operating assistance and develops a plan for a transit project that requires FTA approval, would be required to submit such plans and federal funding applications to SERTA, rather than directly to the FTA.Here's the Senate budget:
Increase the vehicle rental fee from $16 to $18 per rental transaction (the vehicle rental fee could continue to be indexed annually as under Joint Finance). Specify that revenues equal to the amount derived from $1 of the vehicle rental fee would be provided both to the City of Kenosha and the City of Racine for their respective transit systems if each city generates new funds to match the vehicle rental tax revenues. Specify that SERTA would only be allowed to provide Kenosha and Racine revenues from the vehicle rental fee if the cities have demonstrated that they have established a new funding source to produce matching funds for those revenues. Allow for revenues equivalent to up to $2 of the vehicle rental fee to be used for SERTA administration. Specify that the remaining revenues from the vehicle rental fee could be used for costs related to the KRM commuter rail project, including the planning, engineering, construction, maintenance, and operation of the project.
Specify that no municipality within Kenosha or Racine counties, other than the cities of Kenosha and Racine, would be allowed to have a stop on the KRM commuter rail line unless the municipality provides a sustainable funding mechanism to contribute to the existing Kenosha or Racine transit systems.
Modify the appointments to the SERTA board by specifying that the Kenosha County board chair, rather than the Kenosha County Executive, would appoint the Kenosha County member to the board.
Specify that SERTA would be an eligible applicant for the southeastern Wisconsin transit capital assistance program that would be created under the Joint Finance substitute amendment.
Require that the KRM commuter rail project include a stop in the City of Milwaukee at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Bay Street.
Senate: Rename the KRM Authority, as proposed in the Joint Finance substitute amendment, the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA). Modify the appointments to the SERTA board by specifying that the Kenosha County board chair, rather than the Kenosha County Executive, would appoint the Kenosha County member to the board. Specify that SERTA would be an eligible applicant for the southeastern Wisconsin transit capital assistance program that would be created under the Joint Finance substitute amendment. Require that the KRM commuter rail project include a stop in the City of Milwaukee at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Bay Street.