Wisconsin governor proposes regional transit plan

| 9/11/2009

Gov. Jim Doyle is pursuing plans to get more people out of their cars in southeastern Wisconsin and put them on commuter rail and buses. It is the latest effort in the state to provide an alternative transportation option.

A proposal crafted by the governor and area lawmakers is intended to improve transit options in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine through a Regional Transit Authority. Milwaukee County would be given the authority to increase local sales taxes by 0.5 percent to pay for a rail line and transit service.

Racine and Kenosha counties could get state matching money if they joined in the effort. Doyle said the transit plan also puts the region in good position to secure federal transit aid for the proposed $200 million Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line.

“Investing in safe, reliable modes of transportation allows people to travel and commute efficiently and it strengthens the economy,” Doyle said in a statement.

Doyle has supported Regional Transit Authorities that serve a population base, rather than any specific municipal jurisdiction, and are independently governed. Among the governor’s priorities, authorities also should provide property tax relief and spend revenue solely on transit.

He wants the plan approved by as early as the fall. If the Legislature endorses the initiative, the Milwaukee County Board would need to pass enabling legislation to implement the tax increase.

The initiative to get commuters out of their personal vehicles isn’t the only transit news to come out of Wisconsin in recent weeks. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to spend $47.1 million to buy two high-speed trains from a Spanish company.

Advocates say the purchase will generate jobs and put the state in prime position to compete for some of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects. If Wisconsin gets a share of the funding, the state has the option to buy two more trains from Patentes Talgo of Spain.

The action by the budget committee is final. The full Legislature will not vote on the issue.

The state will issue bonds to cover the expense of the trains’ purchase, which are expected to be running by 2011.

Advocates say the state’s existing freight lines can accommodate the trains, rather than needing to have the lines straightened at a substantial cost to the state.

The two 14-car trains will be used for Amtrak’s Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line. If stimulus money is routed to the state, two more trains would be added for a proposed Milwaukee-to-Madison line that could be running by 2013.

To attract riders, the new trains will offer amenities currently not available on the Hiawatha line. Improved seating and Wi-Fi service are planned with the possibility of adding bicycle racks.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Wisconsin in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.