Legislative budget writers are scheduled to consider a proposal today to allow for the creation of Regional Transit Authorities, complete with powers to levy a half-cent local sales tax. Finance Committee Co-chairman Mark Miller thinks it's a good idea. "Sales tax is not nearly as steady as other forms of taxes such as income taxes or property taxes, but it's one that's easy to collect. The mechanism is always in place," says Miller, adding that half a cent should provide adequate funding.
The measure in Governor Doyle's proposed state budget would allow for the creation of RTAs in Dane County, the Fox Valley, and southeastern Wisconsin. Julia Taylor with the Greater Milwaukee Committee says it's not a done deal – because some Democrats are fearful of being associated with any tax increase. "But I think there's also political considerations that have to go beyond fear looking at something like a sales tax, to looking at the type of leadership that people are hungry for, in this community and other communities in the state, to keep us advancing and provide jobs for the region," says Taylor.
Miller concedes that establishment of the RTA in the Milwaukee-Kenosha-Racine area faces a political challenge. "Southeast Wisconsin has a history of being very volatile in terms of reaction to any sort of a sales tax increase," Miller says, referring to the controversial decision to include Racine and Kenosha counties in the Miller Park stadium tax district, which led to election defeats and recalls for elected officials from the region. Still, Miller thinks the RTA legislation will be approved as part of the budget. "There may be some modifications, in response to some of the local sensitivities," Miller says, adding that the budget language "is a response to what the regions want. They've requested authorizing legislation, so they can create these RTAs."
Taylor, with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, says business leaders in southeastern Wisconsin are past the point of asking for better transit. "They're demanding it, they're not just asking for it," she says. "They've been funding the efforts on it, talking to legislators, speaking out in support for it. They see this as a very vital piece that has to get done."
Environmental groups have also been urging legislators to approve the RTA language. Steve Hiniker is with 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. "Sixty to seventy years ago, transit was thriving in most of Wisconsin's larger communities. We actually had streetcars in 22 communities at one point," says Hinniker. "We've gotten rid of so much transit, we forget what it can do for a community."
In Milwaukee, where the transit system is under enormous financial pressure, Taylor says the need for an RTA is urgent. "We don't have three to five years to figure this out, we have this year to figure this out," she says. "I think the more that we continue to be uncompetitive in the area of transit, the more difficult it is to attract companies here, and the more difficult it is to retain them."