Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Time for Milwaukee to emulate Madison?

The city of Madison and Dane County recently announced an agreement to pursue the creation of a regional transit authority (RTA) in an attempt to improve the Madison region's transit infrastructure. This announcement came after a rather bitter disagreement between Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and County Executive Kathleen Falk over the kind of transit needed. The Mayor opted for a city-focused trolley; the county executive wanted a county-wide commuter train.

Sound familiar? The Falk/Cieslewicz battle is similar to the disagreement between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Scott Walker over how transit should look in Milwaukee.

The debate in Madison ended with a signed regional cooperation agreement that calls for the creation of an RTA and the implementation of a multi-phased plan to improve the regions transit infrastructure. The proposal seeks to up the sales tax in Dane county by .5% - not an insignificant figure. The funding mechanism would tie buses, trolleys, trains and roads into one integrated, multimodal transportation system.

The Madison newspaper, Wisconsin State Journal, endorsed the proposed agreement this week in an editorial, which read, in part:

"In addition to keeping alive the plan to develop a commuter rail line, the agreement:

  • Merges Cieslewicz's plan for Downtown streetcars with the commuter rail proposal to create one transportation system that could be developed in phases.
  • Offers a new way to finance the operation and expansion of Metro Transit bus service, relieving pressure on property taxpayers.
  • Provides a new way to pay for improvements to roads in Dane County's villages and towns.

Consequently, the agreement offers aid to a variety of transportation options throughout the county.

Madison and Dane County need more information before deciding whether commuter rail, streetcars, expanded bus service or an added sales tax are the right transportation answers. But by holding the options open, Wednesday's agreement keeps Madison and Dane County on track toward regional solutions."

Is the Milwaukee area ready for such an agreement? This is a difficult question to answer, but a 2006 Public Policy Forum opinion survey did find strong support for transit improvement projects throughout the Milwaukee region, with transit options having higher approval rates then "more highway capacity." The Public Policy Forum will continue to track public opinion and monitor progress on transit planning in the Milwaukee community.

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