Thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bills and other factors, transit systems in Wisconsin face a bleak future. The Legislature should not allow the worst to happen.
Even if you never use a bus and would never think of getting on a commuter train, the current bleak prospects for mass transit systems in Wisconsin should matter to you.
Transit moves people to jobs, it eases congestion on city streets and freeways and it gives people another transportation option. That’s important, especially now as drivers are faced with rising gasoline prices and roadwork that is shutting down lanes on freeways and major highways.
The Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker need to rethink their approach to transit and make sure that Wisconsin’s systems remain healthy, especially for those who need it for work, school and shopping. Businesses such as Bucyrus International and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. rely on transit. New businesses and young professionals look to modern transit as the sign of a healthy and vibrant community.
What’s in the works moves Wisconsin in the opposite direction and could damage transit systems across the state beyond repair.
• Walker’s budget would slice transit aids in the first year of the biennium and provide no alternative dedicated local funding source to help meet already financially troubled systems.
• The budget shifts transit aids from the segregated and protected transportation fund to the general fund, where transit systems would have to compete with myriad services for scarce dollars. Walker argues that the gasoline tax that largely supplies the transportation fund is a user fee paid for by drivers and should be used only on those roads that drivers use.
But mass transit helps ease pressure on those roads and gives drivers other choices, as Steve Hiniker of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, points out. Buses are a vital form of transportation.
• Because Walker’s budget-repair bill would eliminate most collective bargaining with public employees, federal aid, which is dependent on workers being able to bargain, would be jeopardized for mid-size transit systems such as Appleton’s.
• A separate bill in the Legislature would kill regional transit authorities that were created in recent years to help regions strengthen and support local transit systems. Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a co-sponsor of the bill, told us the RTAs were put together badly and he’d like to repeal them and start over with an honest policy debate. We’d prefer leaving them in place and making adjustments where needed so that regions can start now to build what they need.
• Walker’s budget bill freezes local tax levy increases, meaning that even if a community wanted to spend more on transit, it couldn’t.
So, here’s the bottom line:
At the same time that state and federal aids for transit are being reduced for many systems in Wisconsin, local officials will have fewer tools to help them compensate for that loss. Transit fares can’t make up for that, and the result could be the crippling of many systems, including Milwaukee’s. And that could mean many people, especially in urban areas, would have even less access to jobs than they do now. It’s unacceptable.