Highway Robbery

Local leaders from the Fox Valley were practically begging state legislators for the right to hold a local referendum to raise $1.5 million to save the Fox Valley Transit system at a recent state senate hearing.

It’s too bad they didn’t want a few hundred million dollars for a big highway project – that would have been far easier.

The testimony for allowing a local referendum for the Regional Transit Authority was compelling.  Business leaders talked about the need to connect people to jobs.  Health care providers talked about the need to connect elderly to doctor’s appointments.  Educators talked about the need for transit for students. Transit officials talked about a surge in transit ridership and arcane federal rules that will cut federal transit aids next year – just as the state is cutting back on transit support.   The picture is dire – without financial aid, the system could disappear and thousands who depend on transit would be stranded.

Despite this clear demonstration of need, Republican committee members were completely unimpressed.  The senators grilled the transit operator and the mayor.  They scoffed at the notion of increased local control.   The mayor was encouraged to cut other local services rather than ask residents through a binding referendum to impose a one tenth of a cent local sales tax.  The message was clear:  “We aren’t about to help transit survive – no matter who needs it.”

If it had only been a highway project.  It would have been so easy and we could have saved so much time.

Senators opposed to transit have no problem spending millions on highway projects with little or no public input.  Take the Highway 23 expansion project between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan.  That project will cost more than $150 million to widen a country road that doesn’t have the traffic counts to justify widening under criteria set the Wisconsin DOT. That project was approved without a single hearing.  No testimony, just legislators eager to make the road-building lobby happy.

The most recent state budget increased highway spending by 14% even though miles driven on state roads peaked in 2004 and been flat ever since.  At the same time that people are driving less, they are using transit more.  Transit ridership is up 15% in the Fox Valley, 10% in Madison and 1.5% in Milwaukee despite deep cuts in aids.  There is strong support for transit – and it will likely grow stronger a gas prices rise.

Why is it so easy to get highways built – and so hard for legislators to support transit?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the road building companies and their lobby are huge contributors to legislative candidates.  Legislators are sure to get big campaign contributions if they support highways.

The transit lobby isn’t so well-heeled.  Bus system operators and transit advocates don’t bankroll campaigns.  If they did, Wisconsin would have a world-class transit system.

The future of transit in the Fox Valley is at stake.  If the legislature is willing to let transit die in the Fox Valley, other cities won’t be far behind.