Business leaders want mass transit authority for SE Wisconsin

Last updated on June 28th, 2021 at 04:15 am

Some of southeastern Wisconsin’s key business leaders said today that the creation of a regional transit authority to upgrade Milwaukee County’s bus system and create a Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail is essential for the economic vitality of the region.

Backed by some of area’s most prominent business executives, Gov. Jim Doyle announced today new legislation to create a Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA).

The plan includes a 0.5 percent sales tax increase in Milwaukee County to provide a dedicated funding source for the county’s financially troubled bus system.

Business leaders said mass transit is needed to help people get to work and is a key amenity to attracting talented workers to southeastern Wisconsin.

“This is not a want, this is an absolute need for the community,” said Tim Sullivan, president and chief executive officer of South Milwaukee-based Bucyrus International Inc. The announcement about the RTA legislation was held at the Bucyrus headquarters.

“It’s critical that this legislation pass during the spring 2010 session,” said Robert Mariano, chairman and CEO of Milwaukee-based Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc. “It is foolish to ignore, this is an economic development issue. Transit builds the economy.”

“For the vitality of southeastern Wisconsin, getting this bill through the legislature is critical,” said Scott VanderSanden, president of AT&T Wisconsin.

“We believe regional transit and the KRM is an important investment in the future of our region,” said J. Fisk Johnson, chairman and CEO of Racine-based S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. “More efficient and more affordable public transit can help make a city an even more attractive place for business and can help the vibrancy of a community. The lack of accessibility to Milwaukee and Chicago is a big reason it is more challenging to attract key people to our company.”

“It’s really frustrating to see the constant deterioration of public transit,” said Ed Zore, CEO of Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. “It’s really important for business to have a good public transit system.”

About 700 of his company’s employees use public transit, Zore said.


Clock is ticking

The supporters of the bill to create the SERTA believe they may be on the clock.

Doyle is not running for re-election in the fall. The state’s budget problems may give a Republican candidate a better chance to win the governor’s race. If either of the Republican candidates for governor, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker or former Congressman Mark Neumann, is elected, they could block RTA legislation. Walker reiterated his opposition to creating an RTA to fund mass transit in the region.

“I believe now is not the time for a tax increase,” Walker told BizTimes Milwaukee. “Considering the economy, the last thing we want is a tax increase right now.”

Walker said concerns about the financial health of the county’s bus system have been exaggerated. He acknowledged that in the long run, financial issues for the bus system must be addressed. However, he said a better option than a tax increase would be to allocate some state sales taxes from the sale of vehicles for mass transit systems. He also said the county should privatize General Mitchell International Airport and use funds from that for the transit system.

Neumann could not be reached for comment about the issue Tuesday.

With the future of the governor’s office up in the air, transit advocates, including several business leaders, are hoping the state legislature approves the new RTA proposal this spring.

Transit advocates are anxious for a solution to the Milwaukee County Transit System’s funding problems.

“The bus system in Milwaukee is desperately in need of immediate help,” Doyle said. “We need to get moving on that.”

Until the problems with Milwaukee County’s bus system are solved, many local and federal government officials are refusing to support the plans for the proposed KRM commuter rail service.

The details

If approved, the new RTA plan calls for a 0.5 percent increase in the sales tax for Milwaukee County to provide funds for the county’s bus system. Existing funding sources, including property taxes, in Racine and Kenosha counties would continue to fund bus services in those counties.

The proposed KRM commuter rail service would be funded by a car rental fee at tampa bay limousine in the three counties of up to $18 per rental.

The car rental fee has already been approved by the state government, but the Milwaukee County sales tax increase has not.

The plan calls for the transit services of the three counties to eventually merge into one RTA.
Other counties also could join the RTA, if they choose to do so.

The transit services in Racine County and Kenosha County have much smaller needs so they want to keep their funding separate for their own bus systems, said Julia Taylor, an RTA board member and president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. Those counties are more concerned about providing funding for the KRM, she said.

Under the proposal, any new funding sources for the RTA must be approved by voters in a referendum, Doyle said. An advisory referendum was approved in 2008 for a 1 percent Milwaukee County sales tax hike for transportation, parks and ambulance services.

The sales tax increase for Milwaukee County will eliminate the cost of the Milwaukee County Transit System from the property tax base, which will result in property tax relief, Doyle and other supporters said.

“It can’t be paid by the property tax,” Sullivan said. “It has to be paid by sales tax. That would put us in line with virtually every other state.”

Without a dedicated funding source, transit supporters say the Milwaukee County bus system will continue to compete with other services for property tax funds and will be subject to additional service cutbacks and fare increases.

A regional transit plan that addresses the needs of the bus system is necessary to convince federal officials to provide funding for a new commuter rail service, Doyle said.

The state has invested massive amounts of money to improve the region’s roads, including the Marquette Interchange project and the expansion and reconstruction of Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Illinois, but Doyle said improvements to mass transit are also needed in the region.

“Modern infrastructure needs good roads. We have invested heavily in that,” Doyle said. “But it also needs passenger rail.”

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