Saturday, May 02, 2009

That's why they call it a railroad

In my column this week for the Waukesha Freeman (just a couple of quarters for the deadtree edition), I questioned the leadership of the Waukesha County Board and their inaction on the proposed Regional Transit Authority in southeastern Wisconsin.  It was a timely piece, appearing the morning the Joint Finance Committee in the legislature was to consider the structure and funding of the RTA.

According to local environmental writer Jim Rowen, former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist said there were two stages to any transportation plan: “It’s too soon to know” and “It’s too late to do anything about it.”

By deciding to punt on this important question, the county board’s executive committee decided to push off the decision from possibly too early to possibly too late. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is expected to consider the RTA for southeastern Wisconsin today.

Contrary to Wolff’s assertion, the RTA is not an inevitability. There is a very real chance it may be defeated today, or else modified to only include Milwaukee County.

Waukesha County’s leadership could have taken the opportunity last week to express clearly the opposition of Waukesha residents to any proposal to include Waukesha County or any of its communities as part of the RTA. Such a clear statement that Waukesha County would never be a willing part of the RTA might have helped kill it.

Instead, Waukesha residents might wake up at the end of the state budget process to see Milwaukee County trying to suck more of our tax dollars to fund their buses and a train from Milwaukee to Illinois.

Even I could not foresee the Democrats' sense of self-preservation taking such precedence over any common sense. The Democrats, fearing a taxpayer revolt in Racine removing their Senator John Lehman, decided to exempt Racine and Kenosha counties from the proposed sales tax. However, Milwaukee County would be taxed, while Racine and Kenosha would receive representation on the RTA. Those counties would have representation, but Milwaukee County would not given how unreliable the suburbs within the county have proven in their support for a train or light rail system. Instead on the City of Milwaukee would have representation.

So we have no taxation with representation (Racine, Kenosha) and taxation without representation (Milwaukee County).

Waukesha County residents might take some false comfort in all this. After all, we have been spared in this opening round and a precedent has been set. Perhaps the city of Waukesha should petition the state to force Milwaukee County to build (and pay for) the pipeline necessary for Milwaukee to provide the City of Waukesha with water from Lake Michigan.

But the reality is the other precedent this sets. Waukesha County residents should be increasingly wary of any attempt to force them to subsidize Milwaukee's transit issues. That pressure will grow as the pressure on Milwaukee's taxpayers grows.

Unless we start taking firm stands now, the legislature may decide to punish our Republican representation, even as the state is currently punishing Milwaukee County residents who voted for Scott Walker as their County Executive.

Cooperation between the Waukesha and Milwaukee on transit is possible, such as the recent agreement between the City of Waukesha and Milwaukee County to eliminate the transfer fee between the two bus systems. But such cooperation must be as equals, and not imposed from the state.