June 18, 2009

Backtrack: Senate budget endangers KRM,
cuts bus funding for Racine

KRM commuter rail's prospects dimmed Thursday with passage of the Senate's budget.

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.

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.
Here's the Senate budget:
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.


  1. Hopefully this kills this total and complete waste of money. Don`t despair we still do have Amtrak just a bit to the west. What need is there for another train when the one we already have is never full? If there is enough ridership be it from the north or the south we can add another stop. The bus can travel any direction that is necessary. The scj folks will just have to continue to either drive from there out of town locations or use the Amtrak which we lose our tails on year after year.IMHO!!!

  2. "their"

    Sorry for the bad grammar!

  3. So let me see if I understand this:

    Joint Finance put out a garbage proposal initially that would not get KRM done.

    Cory Mason took the initiative to contact the Feds to verify what would be a workable solution and then, with the Assembly, proposed a solution that could actually get us there.

    Then, the Senate issues their budget and basically doesn't change anything of substance from the Joint Finance garbage proposal.

    In other words, State Democrats just sent a big f-you to the citizens of Racine. They had access to the same information Cory had and didn't even bother to try to come up with a budget proposal that would be a workable solution.

    Democrats across Racine really need to question their party participation today. This will go to a special committee to reconcile the budget differences. There is only one acceptable solution here - one that actually works.

    Thanks to Cory for sticking up for Racine by working out a solution. He did the right thing and what we would expect. He gave us a shot at getting this thing done in a difficult situation.

    As for the State Democrats, I guess you have one final chance to do the right thing. This issue is too important to Racine to let it fade away due to bs political posturing. We will not stand for this.

  4. This is the ugly truth. We cannot just continue to hide taxes here and there in the cost of everything to pay for our wish lists. The train and bus are important, then we need to trim somewhere else. Not add more hidden costs, taxes, fees, or fines onto the people. What are we willing to give up for the train. Is it going to be better than the bus or existing trains. Will people actually give up their cars? We need to think smart in planning transportation for the future.

  5. Why "Require that the KRM commuter rail project include a stop in the City of Milwaukee at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Bay Street." Who 's property ??
    Why County Board chair ( Kenoasha & Racine ?? ) and not County Exec . ???

  6. Racine has no trains today because of a hasty and poor decision made in 1971 when Amtrak was started. The owner of the Racine tracks (C&NW) did not want Amtrak, the financially-troubled Milwaukee Road did. So the path of least resistance (and fewer passengers) was taken.

    Prior to 1971, Racine had multiple departures for Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay (two routes existed between Milwaukee and Green Bay.) These trains were the North Western Railway's "400" streamliners, very nice trains until the late 1960's.

    The Hiawatha trains set new ridership records every year. Rush-hour trains often have many people standing-not enough seats. More Milwaukee-Chicago trains are needed, but the present Amtrak route carries many freight trains and has severe Metra congestion the last five miles into Chicago.

    By contrast, the Union Pacific (UP) tracks through Racine have little freight traffic other than the coal trains. South of Lake Bluff, IL there is almost no freight traffic at all. Also, no sharing of Metra tracks with their busy Fox Lake and Elgin lines on the approach to Chicago.

    Solution: build a connector track (space available) between the north lead tracks at Union Station in Chicago and the UP Kenosha line at North Avenue yard. Accept the 70MPH speed limit to Kenosha. Work with the UP to improve signals and track capacity Kenosha-Oak Creek. Use public funds to rebuild and re-signal one main track Oak Creek-Milwaukee. Modify the Hiawatha locomotives to use the UP train signal system. Then add some Chicago-Milwaukee trains and divide the service between the Sturtevant and Racine routes. Operate some experimental commuter trains (with borrowed equipment) between Kenosha and Milwaukee to see how many people will really use it before asking taxpayers to commit $250 million.

    The capital cost of the trackwork listed above would be one-third of the amount cited for KRM ($250M). The track improvements would continue to be used for regional passenger rail even if KRM is postponed or cancelled. This is called "reducing risk-to-capital."

    At least twice in the last few years, this alternative route would have would have averted great delays and inconvenience for Amtrak and Metra passengers in emergency situations, had it been available.

  7. Dear Senator Lehman,

    How does it feel to be completely abandoned by your own party? How does it feel to be treated like you don't matter? That's exactly what your fellow Senators just did.

    If you're upset, then good because the Democrats here in Racine that voted for you and the principles of what this party means feel the same way.

    If this thing goes down then someone must pay the price and unfortunately it will have to be you. We thank you for your years of service but it has become apparent that your fellow Senators have no respect for you at all and they do not value your leadership and contribution so why should we? If that is the case, then we are obliged to finish the job and have you removed.

    In the private sector, epic failures are met with a pink slip. Since we cannot remove the other Senators, we have no choice but to take action on things that we can control and remove you if this project fails.

    While you may have supported the Assembly's proposal, you still voted for the Senate budget, which sent a direct message to the people of Racine that they do not care.

    The time has come to do the right and difficult thing. Racine can't wait and we will not accept or tolerate failure any longer.

  8. "In the private sector, epic failures are met with a pink slip"

    Can we fire Mason and Doyle too please?

  9. I am soooo tired of hearing about this stupid project! It's a complete waste of everyone's time and money and will never amount to anything but a massive tax burden. I cannot believe this is still alive!

  10. What happened to those folks who were talking about recalling Lehman?

    If KRM does not happen, I will be the first in line to sign that petition. This is coming from someone who helped work on his campaign.

    Electing democrats for the sake of electing democrats is beyond stupid.

  11. Hey Colt - if you voted for them and are unhappy with their representation based on what you put them in there to do, then by all means try to fire them.

    What Mason was able to deliver on this issue was a plan that actually might work and is funded by a rental car tax paid mostly by out of town visitors.

    We get the train and bus improvements, and with it a shot at some economic activity and prosperity. KRM does not solve all of our problems but it is a step in the right direction - a direction sorely needed in this town right now.

    Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.

    Let's face it. Lehman was the one that wanted the rental car tax. He was on the Joint Finance Team that put forth the proposal that wouldn't work. Now he knows it wouldn't work and voted for a budget that dooms it. He is not 100% to blame if this fails, but every failed project needs a patsy and he's it.

    Senate Democrats sent a message to Racine and we shall return that message in kind if this fails. Sorry John, but this one is on you. Thank your fellow Senators, your own Joint Finance prosposal, and your vote for the Senate budget for it.

  12. I would like to thank them both for the huge tax includes and even more spending when we are billions in the red.
    Walker will have his job cut out for him.

    KRM will NOT NOT NOT bring jobs to Racine nor will it even come close to the ridership projected. Nothing more IMHO then yet another toy for J-wax.

  13. StopthemadnessNOW6/19/2009 6:33 PM

    Hate to admit defeat, but regional transportation is deader than a doornail.

    There is more than enough blame to spread around, so won't start with any individual or interest group. Let's just say that the lack of vision, political courage and leadership here in SE Wisconsin (particularly Racine Co.) is appalling!

    The powers-that-be have no problem adding lanes to a petroleum-slurping Interstate 94. They'll nickel and dime us to patch potholes. And yes, they'll eventually raise the motor fuel tax and vehicle registration to pay for it all. We're talking about a downward transportation spiral fueled by a lack of planning. (Last year's $4/gallon gas is going to seem like a bargain.)

    So, sit back and see what happens to SE Wisconsin over the next 20 years. I guarantee-damn-tee ya it won't be pretty, folks.

  14. Thank GOD!!!! As Colt said, DIE KRM, DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Urban Pioneer6/20/2009 1:08 PM

    Yea Sen Lehman, and all of the other State Senators who helped wrestle this thing down..Our Gov'r and the Assembly and Senate are in the process of raising 200 taxes and fees. Obama and the Congress are all raising taxes like crazy..We are strangling our economy from every point..Now is NOT the time for a KRM or any expansion of Mass Transit. How stupid is this..The Govt. which has lost billions on Amtrak over the years..is now running 2 of the major Auto companies..and now were going to use more of the Govt. to build another train service which will be under utilized, will lose money buy the bushel full everyday.. We are building trains to get people to drive less, and shoring up an auto industry to keep overpaid Union workers working..but the cars they build will compete for the same customers! This is ridiculous!!

  16. For Anon 6/19 1:23 p.m. advocating Amtrak use the UP Northline, a careful attempt by railroad insiders was made about ten years ago to accomplish the "connector track" you suggest.

    However, events since then have shown Wisconsin incapable of carrying forward any well-vetted train plan. Years before the methodical studies were complete, Illinois and the RR companies there rightly decided the difficulties of attempting a connector were not worth it.

    Those insiders were actively supporting the initial phase of the preliminary work begun here to make sure lakeshore commuter trains could meet SE Wisconsin transit needs and funding capability. They have long since vanished, too, reverting to more knowledgeable Illinois where trains are integral to public transportation.

    To one of many metropoli where trains of one variety or another are routinely planned upon, designed into, funded, and then well-used in combination with buses, taxis, and even rickshaws.

    Only in the horse-and-buggy logic of KRM critics is this modest commuter train project a wild-eyed, hare-brained invention of some other-worldly transit operation never attempted anywhere before.

  17. " one of many metropoli where trains of one variety or another are routinely planned upon, designed into, funded, and then well-used in combination with buses, taxis, and even rickshaws."

    Can you list a few? And how many areas in that list even come close to breaking even?

  18. Only short sighted people that have not traveled much outside of Racine, Wisconsin would be against KRM. The Cities of Racine and Beloit are the worst shit holes in the midwest. What other than the KRM has a chance to change that? If this dies when there is federal money available, it will be dead for a long time. Senator Lehman has to go....

  19. Anon 6/23 2:33 pm, you have highlighted a clear lack of qualification to survey commuter train proposals among those needing help at simply identifying metrpopli that already use KRM-like services successfully.

    Recent data presented at MATC-South, Oak Creek, in late January shows this region in Wisconsin more dependent on personal vehicles, and therefore on gas price fluctuations, for commuting to/from work than any other area. Yet these handful of critics seem unaware that gas saved by urban commuters leaving their cars and SUVs at home immediately will lessen demand, shifting the balance of supply/demand in favor of all who continue driving to work. You know, like all those Raymond and Wind Lake residents who are too widelu scattered for any transit service (bus or train) to function cost-effectively.

    The more quizzing critics repeat themselves, the more apparent is their lack of expertise -- or even bassic awareness -- about commuting, about transit for a region.

    No better proof than inability to identify northeast Illinois Metra and its Pace bus counterpart among the numerous RTA operations nationwide which contribute to regional prosperity by providing a commuting alternative.