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The Transfer of Transit and Other Nefarious Ideas

BY Will Stahl

A few weeks before the election I attended the statewide Sierra Club Autumn Assembly. One of the speaker’s topic was Wisconsin transportation issues. He mentioned the referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment, which would segregate the transportation budget from the general fund. It’s going to pass he told us: it sounds too reasonable to keep money from transportation related taxes and fees only for transportation.

But it isn’t about what it seems to be about. When they get the transportation fund strictly separated from the general fund, he said, they are going to try to take public transit out of the transportation fund and cast it off into the general fund where it will have to compete with education, prisons, the DNR, law enforcement, WDEC and every other thing the state does, while localities where thousands depend on public transit scrape and scratch to find the money to continue.

They tried this last year, but they were stopped by legislators such as our local Mike Ellis and Penny Bernard Schaber, both of whom are no longer in office. Those two also back a bill, blocked by the Republican leadership, that would have allowed municipalities to form regional transit authorities (RTAs), giving them authority to enact very small taxes and make them self-sustaining, not needing state or federal money.

And so of course, they are already at it. Rep. Robin Vos said recently that transit isn’t transportation; it’s a social service, and so it shouldn’t draw from the transportation fund. Transportation is only highways. But though transportation is now segregated from the general fund, the general fund is not segregated from transportation. The Republican leadership is already talking about how much money they need to take from the general fund to feed their highway-building donors. Even that isn’t enough.

I doubt the people who voted for Scotty and his friends knew that were voting for a big tax and fee increase. The Republicans are proposing to double the vehicle registration fee and impose an extra fifty-dollar fee on owners of innovative, fuel-efficient vehicles. They are also going to try to raise the gas tax (not to mention a major utility rate increase voted in by the governor’s appointees on the Public Service Commision) and their plan calls for the tax to rise with the price of gasoline instead of being the flat per-gallon tax we have now.

The purpose of gathering all this money is too put it into building and enlarging highways, many of which are not really needed and are opposed by nearby residents. The prime example is the I-94 expansion near Milwaukee. Research has shown that traffic on that stretch has been declining for years, but that doesn’t stop the administration and its allies from wanting to spend around a billion dollars on it.

The ironic thing is that overall vehicle miles driven has been dropping for over a decade, and indications are that the American “love affair” with the automobile, always overrated in my opinion, is slowly fading. Young people especially seem to show less interest in cars and much less interest in the whole live-in-the-suburbs-and-drive-everywhere way of life. They, especially the most educated and talented, want to live in cities where they can walk and take public transportation to work, entertainment and cultural events.

From an environmental perspective, this is a positive development. Walking is good for people, and riding in cars to every destination, no matter how close, is a major cause of our obesity epidemic. Public transportation moves people with fewer emissions than individual cars and encourages compact urban development that avoids the sprawl that eats up farmland and green space.

Republicans are fighting a rear-guard action to preserve the business model of their big donors in especially the petroleum and utility sectors. These people have made vast amounts of money from the use of polluting, carbon-dense fuels and they don’t want to have to deal with changing it. They claim no one would take the buses and trains in expanded public transit systems, but the evidence is against them.

They keep their base riled up with climate change denial and claims that transit is just a kind of rolling welfare. The evidence for climate change is becoming more obvious all the time, and the fact is no transportation system pays for itself.

Highways gobble up land and require endless maintenance and repair. They are a huge subsidy for the trucking industry and those who want to live in big houses out of the city.

All around the world, nations are building innovative and efficient transit systems, and forward-looking cities here are investing in streetcar lines, light rail and clean, quiet electric buses, while our corporate chieftains try to keep us in our cars. They are dinosaurs and they are trying to keep the furry mammals of the future from eating their eggs. But we all know how that story turns out.

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