On June 29, however, the Madison area saw arguably the biggest single step toward getting a regional transit system when Gov. Jim Doyle signed a state budget that included approval for Dane County to form a regional transit authority (RTA). It would have taxing authority within federally set boundaries, and discussion so far has centered around the idea of the RTA enacting a half-cent sales tax that would raise some $38 million annually.
But while Dane County leaders say there are still many details to figure out about what an RTA would fund before putting a referendum before area voters, critics say that the RTA has always been about trains and that they will be gearing up opposition accordingly.
One of the chief critics of an RTA has been Dane County Board Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz, who represents the Waunakee area. She says transportation discussions have focused much too heavily on a commuter rail line running from Middleton through Madison to the town of Burke, which has an estimated price tag of $250 million, plus $10 million in annual operating costs.
Trowbridge said at a recent city of Madison Economic Development Commission meeting that having an RTA and a funding mechanism in place would significantly bolster Transport 2020's application to get federal money for commuter rail, which could sharply reduce what area residents would need to pay.
But Bruskewitz says alternative plans to strengthen bus service have not been seriously discussed, adding that she would potentially support an RTA if the city and the county showed genuine interest in revamping Madison Metro to more efficiently and cheaply serve the entire region.
"I don't want to call these people lazy, but the establishment is that we have this system in place and we can't fix it, so let's do something different instead of going back and saying, these policies are hurting us," she says. "There's not the will to do it because the current system is so bogged down and no one is willing to take it on."
Bruskewitz adds that she thinks "more people are opposed to it than the proponents realize."
Several Dane County communities, including Sun Prairie, Stoughton, Waunakee and Cross Plains, have formally opposed the commuter rail plan in Transport 2020's application for federal funds, as has the Dane County Towns Association.
About 75 percent of the county's population lies within the federally set Madison Metropolitan Planning Organization boundary that would be subject to a sales tax. DeForest, Oregon, Cross Plains, Black Earth and Mazomanie are among the larger communities that would be outside of it.
Given the stated opposition to trains in some parts of the county, Bruskewitz says she is happy with one of the biggest changes that Gov. Doyle made to the RTA in passing the budget, which was to remove highway funds as an eligible expense despite County Executive Kathleen Falk's and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's support for it.
"It makes it cleaner," Bruskewitz says. "It's not about highways, and I always thought that was a bait-and-switch kind of thing."
Cieslewicz says including up to 25 percent of RTA revenue for roads would have been "another selling point" for a referendum, but he adds that both he and Falk "don't think it's the end of the world that roads aren't in the equation."
While Doyle vetoed language that would have required Dane County to hold a referendum on the question of funding the RTA with a half-percent sales tax, Cieslewicz says the city and the county are both committed to holding a binding referendum for voters in the planning area.
As for what effect removing roads might have on a referendum's outcome, Falk says it's too soon to say. The earliest possible time that the sales tax referendum would go to voters is the fall 2010 election, and the county must first vote to establish the RTA and decide which types of transit, from buses to express buses to commuter rail, it will fund.
"I can't answer that," Falk says about a referendum's chances. "I'm not trying to be coy or insincere, but we don't have a proposal to take to the voters."
While she and Cieslewicz had pushed strongly for allowing up to 25 percent of RTA funds for roads, other transit advocates say it will be better off using all of the funds for mass transit.
"There are many pots of money that fund road maintenance, and I don't think we need to create another one," says Madison Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway. "It should stand or fall on transit. If we can't make the argument that we deserve a better bus system and more investment in transit, then we shouldn't have" an RTA.
County Board Chairman Scott McDonell says he was ambivalent about including roads because of the limited resources that a half-percent sales tax would provide. Current estimates are that the sales tax increase would provide the RTA with $38 million annually.
"You think a half-cent is a lot of money, but when you start divvying it up, there's not a lot for transit projects," he says. "I think what you do (with roads) is you get a lot of people saying, 'It's not as bad,' but then they still won't vote for it."
McDonell says he hopes to have legislation establishing the RTA at the County Board level before taking up the budget this fall. The odds are in his favor; in past votes, the board has voted strongly in favor of regional transit initiatives.
After creating the RTA, which is like "creating a committee with some extra powers," McDonell says, the RTA will start to meet and hammer out details on what types of transit it will fund -- with the big question being whether it will push for the $250 million commuter rail project.
Committing to a binding referendum means that those who will be on the RTA board, which would include nine people to be appointed by state, county and local leaders, will need to think long and hard about whether there is public support for commuter rail and other options, such as expanded bus service.
Whether the RTA chooses commuter rail for the region, Cieslewicz and McDonell say proper funding for regional transit will be important regardless.
"I've been a strong supporter of commuter rail, but with or without commuter rail, the RTA is critical to the future of this community growing," McDonell says.
I don't know how I feel about this. Madison can't even run a bus service properly, I don't know how badly they'd fuck this up. Chicago's fail has infected us before we've even gotten started.