October 8, 2009
Forum: To build commuter rail, officials first have to fix bus systems
A forum was held in Racine Wednesday night on KRM as a "game-changer." Here's a few notes from the forum ...
* It was a good-sized turnout. About 110 people attended the forum, which was held in the DeKoven Center's Great Hall. It was a standing-room-only crowd full of local business, government and community leaders.
* As is the trend in recent months, speakers focused on KRM as part of a wider "transit" issue that includes southeastern Wisconsin's eight bus systems. There's no dedicated funding source (ie. a sales tax) to pay for buses in the Milwaukee region, which is unusual. Nineteen of 22 U.S. cities considered peers of Milwaukee have some sort of tax or revenue source to pay for buses. The lack of dedicated funding in southeastern Wisconsin is creating a crisis in funding that's resulted in fare increases and service cuts, according to Ken Yunker, head of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
* The reality is KRM won't move forward until the region figures out a way to pay for buses. Mayor John Dickert continued his stance that buses should be handled on a regional basis. This would allow buses to connect Racine to Union Grove, Kenosha and Milwaukee, while also linking Burlington to Milwaukee and Kenosha. Now, the systems are too scattered to effectively move people from one city to another, which hurts efforts to create a regional economy between Milwaukee and Chicago.
* There's still no talk about how buses will be paid for. The Legislature and governor created the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, which can levy an $18 car rental tax to pay for commuter rail. But Milwaukee and Milwaukee County officials are making sure that won't happen until buses dealt with. In Milwaukee that could be a sales tax, but a sales tax in Racine or Racine County is unlikely.
* That leaves open speculation on how the Racine area will pay for transit. No one is talking specifics, but get ready for some discussion about a "wheel tax," which is allowed under state law. A wheel tax charges vehicle owners a fee on top of the state's annual registration fee. All proceeds from a wheel tax must be used for transportation-related costs.
* A sales tax was, briefly, mentioned. But any sales would apparently require a referendum.
* Jim Eastman, a long-time advocate for commuter rail in Racine, emceed the forum. To cheers from the crowd, he vowed not to retire from his job until he can take commuter rail from Racine to Milwaukee or Chicago.
* A couple of officials pointed out that even if estimates about the potential impact of KRM are way off, the numbers are still staggering. KRM-backers claim the train could, in the long run, create 71,000 jobs and $2 billion in development along the rail line. Even those numbers are cut in half, and half again, they're still major economic development for southeastern Wisconsin and Racine.
* RAMAC's Roger Caron, RCEDC's Gordie Kacala, state Sen. John Lehman and Jody Karls were recognized for their work in support of KRM.
* The title of the forum, "Tapping into Transit as a 'Game-Changer' was inspired by an article published on RacinePost.com.