A "Transit Summit" was held in Milwaukee last week to lay out the need for cooperation on bus and train service throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, the group pushing for KRM from Kenosha to Milwaukee, attended the pro-transit summit and wrote a summary of the gathering, which is printed below.
Here are a few key points:
* Scott Bernstein, a national expert on transit and regional economies, said southeastern Wisconsin is competing with 400 other regions for federal money to aid economic development. The money is needed because the Milwaukee region, which includes Racine, now ranks 336th out of 392 regions as a place to live and do business. Declining transit is a major region for the decline, Bernstein said.
* Jeff Van Koningsveld, president of the International Brotherhood of Electricians Local 430 in Racine, said simply that building KRM would create needed jobs in the region.
* Deborah Blanks, CEO of the Milwaukee-based Social Development Commission, summed up the need for transit. “If you want thousands of people in the inner city to work and contribute to the economy they need better transit. People are desperate for better transportation. The fiscal reality is all of the dollars that we are losing. We can’t attract businesses and grow jobs, people can’t get to the jobs and keep the jobs and contribute to our community.”
Here's Thomas's full write-up:
(Anticipating complaints, we're running this because we're pro-transit. Not radically, or irresponsibly so (we pay taxes, too), but Racine needs an injection of outside money to spur development. KRM is one big, multi-million dollar example. Another is effective bus service to I-94 once Caledonia and Mount Pleasant get their business parks going. Mostly, though, we're pro-Racine, and investing in transit helps the city.)
Southeastern Wisconsin must get its regional mass transit act together now or risk losing out in the competitive scramble for federal economic recovery infrastructure dollars while continuing to slide farther behind other regions ranked by economic development indicators for attracting jobs, talent, and outside investment.
That was the sobering message delivered at the 8th Annual Community Development Summit in Milwaukee recently by a national expert, guest panelists and other speakers including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Michael Morgan, Governor Jim Doyle’s secretary of administration.
"Four hundred regions are vying for money. It’s time to start acting like a region because you can’t afford not to," said Scott Bernstein, president of the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), the event’s keynote speaker. In all, a crowd of 200 elected officials, business executives, and others attended the summit at the Italian American Community Center in Milwaukee last week.
Bernstein said a viable regional transit network is of utmost importance for growing jobs, reducing cost of living and foreclosure risk, and promoting a thriving regional economy. (His slide show presentation is available here. A series of maps linking housing and transportation expenses illustrates our shrinking housing affordability and is available at http://htaindex.cnt.org.) Detailed CNT research shows that between 1999 and 2007 in SE Wisconsin income gains were wiped out by the increases in fuel and transportation costs.
Bernstein explained that the cost of transportation must be included with the cost of housing because housing location drives transportation costs, which have climbed to be equal with housing costs region-wide. For Wisconsin, the lack of affordable transportation choices has added to foreclosure pressures and created a leaky economy, bleeding billions of dollars from the economy annually.
Greater Milwaukee Committee President Julia Taylor said improving the regional transportation network is a need “we can’t afford to ignore” any longer. She urged the public to insist their elected officials join “a call to action” to improve the region’s standing.
Bernstein reemphasized the reality that an integrated Regional Transit Authority is needed to coordinate systems across municipal boundaries to support local economies and validate the region’s federal eligibility. Areas that are successful in gaining federal investments are well organized regionally and are viewed as a much more solid investment not only in the federal review process but to investors and the private sector as well.
Barrett and Morgan both voiced similar views along with strong support for improved transit and a Regional Transit Authority. They said a regional approach is essential to creating and executing a broader transportation network with sufficient service and funding. Morgan stated, "A strong SE Wisconsin strengthens the whole state. Transit is high on the Governor’s list to get done."
Bernstein further cited a range of research data that identified poor and declining regional transit service as a key contributor to the region’s low status when compared to other places to live and do business. He said Moody's Investors Service, among the world’s most respected and widely utilized sources for credit ratings, research and risk analysis, ranks the region 336th on a list of 392 areas. Businesses and individuals consider public transportation and access to quality of life amenities highly desirable factors in determining where they will locate. The lack of good modern transit hurts our ability to attract businesses, jobs, and talent.
Bernstein, apologized for the “gloom-and-doom” scenario, but emphasized it’s not too late to take action. He then joined a seven-member reaction panel, which, despite differing views on transportation and economic development issues, unanimously agreed that the region must move quickly and decisively to:
* Form a permanent integrated Regional Transit Authority;
* Establish a dedicated transit funding source for bus systems.
"We can argue [our options], but you can’t argue the need to increase public Transit," said Edward Zore, chairman and CEO of Northwestern Mutual. The company is one of the largest employers in the area with 5,000 workers at its downtown Milwaukee office complex and Franklin campus.
Zore said 11 percent of his workers rely on public transit and complained that the company must run its own employee shuttle service between its two sites because Milwaukee County Transit System service and other options are inadequate or inefficient. Bridging the transportation gap with company money adds to the cost of doing business in the area. As a business already in the area, Northwestern came up with a solution to what another business looking to locate here would see as a potential deal breaker.
Another panelist with business locations just outside Milwaukee County said he could add and train unskilled workers who can’t afford a car, but the options simply don’t exist for them to get to the jobs. “Unless you have a car, you can’t get there from here,” said Eric Isbister, CEO of General MetalWorks Corp, a 65-employee metal fabrication company with plants in Slinger and Mequon. He said the situation is especially frustrating in Mequon where his facility is just north of County Line Road.
Jeff Van Koningsveld, president of the International Brotherhood of Electricians Local 430 in Racine, added that “for Racine job growth has become a critically urgent need. Transit investments create jobs.” He added that the startup of KRM would create 4,000 jobs, and the development along the corridor would create 17,500 that would not be there at all without the investment.
“Everyone will benefit through tourism and sales as or many businesses and cultural destinations open up to nearly 2 million people that live near transit stations in the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor. The time is now to make the RTA real so we can get to work creating jobs and building cleaner more prosperous future.”
Deborah Blanks, CEO of the Milwaukee-based Social Development Commission responded to a question about the fiscal reality of government budgets saying, “If you want thousands of people in the inner city to work and contribute to the economy they need better transit. People are desperate for better transportation. The fiscal reality is all of the dollars that we are losing. We can’t attract businesses and grow jobs, people can’t get to the jobs and keep the jobs and contribute to our community.”
Other panelists were Wallace White, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce; and Karl Ostby, chairman of the temporary Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority.
Current efforts to shore up transit and commuter options include gaining a dedicated funding source for existing bus systems, and moving forward with the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line or KRM. The need for dedicated funding source for transit is important throughout the region, and especially in Milwaukee County where increased fares and route reductions have hit the community hard. Additional service cuts are anticipated in 2010 with more cuts expected in subsequent years under current funding trends.
Taylor emphasized the immediate need to establish dedicated transit funding and a regional authority. “We are one of only two areas where transit is funded by the property tax. The other is Indianapolis.” Taylor noted that there are too many demands on the property tax and it does not grow with the economy resulting in inadequate and unstable funding for maintaining and expanding fundamental transit programs.