RTA Meets the Milwaukee County Board – Meeting Recap
The Milwaukee County Board’s Transportation, Public Works, and Transit Committee, chaired by Supervisor Michael Mayo, held a meeting on Wednesday morning to discuss the recommendations approved by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority. Julia Taylor, the Governor’s Appointee on the RTA, was on hand to answer questions along with Carl Mueller, the RTA’s PR consultant, and Ken Yunker, who has worked closely with the RTA in his role at SEWRPC.
Supervisor Toni Clark, Vice Chair of the Transportation Committee, made it clear during her opening statements that she wasn’t even open to considering an idea of a transit authority. She referred to the past RTA proposals and recommendations as “terrible”. Supervisor Clark questioned how the RTA would be able to pay back bonds, questioning if the “5% sales tax [sic]” would be used. Supervisor Clark’s questioning continued with wondering how the management of the funds would occur with such a disproportionate share coming from Milwaukee County. Julia Taylor responded by indicating that the funds stay in the county and a locally appointed group decides what to spend them on. This theme of how the money works was repeated throughout the meeting, It was repeated over and over again by Taylor that Racine and Kenosha had the same concerns, and that a “firewall” had been put in place to ensure that the funds stay within the county. Supervisor Clark ended her questioning by saying “it doesn’t make sense.”
Next up was supervisor John Weishan, who represents a western area of Milwaukee County. Weishan I anticipated would be critical, as I had heard his opposition to local funding for a commuter rail line at Milwaukee Transit Rider’s Union meeting. He had indicated that he believed the state should be paying for any type of inter-county service. Not surprisingly, his questioning of the RTA beat around the bush of the position I previously learned he held. At one point even saying he wasn’t sure “why this isn’t a state project.”
If the idea behind having an RTA is to create a dedicated funding source that is only for transit and can enable regional efforts to actually move people to where they need to go, then leaving western Milwaukee County out seems like lunacy. Under Weishan’s idea of leaving western Milwaukee County out, MCTS would still exist to serve the western half of the county, while a system would exist in eastern Milwaukee County that would actually connect with the rest of the region.
Supervisor Patricia Jursik was up after Weishan. Her immediate concern was that the RTA could change the federal funding formula for Milwaukee County. Ken Yunker assured her that “federal funds must stay in the county to which they are designated.” He also went on to mention how the region gets an extra $8 million annually for having a transit authority.
Supervisor Jursik continued her questioning with her indicating that she thought the RTA was biting off too much. To which Julia Taylor responded that there was a need for the commuter rail and bus systems to be together so that they can work together to move people. She also reminded the committee that Milwaukee County passed a resolution stating that it wouldn’t support a commuter rail system without a funding source for buses.
It was at this point that Supervisor Jursik took aim at SEWRPC referring to them as “road and highway friendly” and questioned their lack of support for transit. Ken Yunker responded that “what’s missing with transit is the money to implement transit”. He indicated that the RTA had voted on and approved a plan to provide the money to implement transit. Jursik hit on a point that perhaps is often left out of the SEWRPC debate and that is that SEWRPC can only play the roll they are asked to. In the case of the RTA, SEWRPC has helped find a way to make transit work for the region. I think if Milwaukee (especially the Common Council which has been critical of SEWRPC) could find a way to better leverage SEWPRC to do more work like they are doing on the RTA they would be much more pleased with the result.
One of those things SEWRPC has proven to plenty skilled at is identifying trouble areas in the MCTS budget. Supervisor Jursik didn’t mention how much MCTS has come to rely on those previously mentioned federal funds (given for use on capital expenses), and how both Scott Walker AND the Milwaukee County Board have misappropriated those funds year after year for operating expenses. This has created a situation where there isn’t funding available to pay for new bus purchases (which have been put off) and to sustain the routes we have (which have been paid for to-date with the money for new buses).
It was at this point that County Board Chariman Lee Holloway‘s (who hadn’t been in the room long at all) phone went off interrupting the meeting. Committee Chairman Mayo reminded the room to turn their phones off.
At this point it was time for Freshman Supervisor Chris Larson to begin his questioning of the RTA. He began by asking if the RTA’s proposed .5% maximum sales tax was in competition with the County Board’s 1% sales tax plan for transit, parks, and EMS service. Julia Taylor and Carl Mueller responded that it was not.
Chris Larson claimed that he was “inclined to be for the RTA.” He was the only Supervisor on the committee who seemed interested in actually hammering out the differences between the RTA and the County and reaching a solution. This came as a pleasant surprise because Larson not only overrode Walker’s veto to put the Advisory County 1% Sales Tax Referendum on the ballot on November 4th, but was the public face of the Vote Yes campaign.
At this point Chariman Lee Holloway, who had just moved his chair uncomfortably close to the RTA representatives, interrupted the meeting to address his fellow supervisors. He told them that Julia Taylor, Carl Mueller, and Ken Yunker (whom he continually referred as “the people to my right”) had zero experience running a transit system, and that as a committee the supervisors had plenty. He told the supervisors that “we can be the RTA itself” and that the RTA was merely an administrative cost. Holloway exited the meeting shortly thereafter.
Supervisor’s Joe Sanfelippo and Mark Borkowski spoke after Holloway, but neither had much of interest to say. San Phillipo merely indicated that he wasn’t against the KRM commuter rail line. Borkowski, typically a Republican voice on the board, accused the RTA of piggybacking on the success of the county sales tax referendum (which he did not support).
It was at this point that, Chairman Mayo took the chance to personally rip Julia Taylor. He accused Taylor of not involving the County Board in the RTA (ironic because Taylor had met with Mayo about the issue as well as other members). He also told her he hoped she represents Milwaukee better in the future, as if finding a local funding source for a collapsing transit system and promoting a regional solution wasn’t supporting Milwaukee County.
Supervisor Clark would then state that the “RTA would hurt Milwaukee” following a factually incorrect rhetorical question from Mayo, “didn’t we just pass a .1% percent sales tax?” Awkward infighting would emerge later in the meeting between the two regarding Clark’s support of a City of Milwaukee vote on SEWRPC and Mayo opposing it rather oddly in front of the entire audience.
Weishan made a motion to reject the recommendations of the Regional Transit Authority. After considerable debate, including Jursik attempting to hold the measure, all of the committee members with the exception of Larson voted to reject the recommendations of the RTA. Larson argued that a vote no would be seen as more inaction by the Milwaukee County Board. It was clear that at least Mayo, Clark, and Weishan knew the motion was coming (from which Weishan read verbatim from a printed copy), but that Supervisor Larson and potentially others were kept in the dark.
We have previously endorsed the RTA as a good proposal for fixing the region’s transit woes. Outside of the reasons detailed in that column, there are a couple other strong factors. The sales tax generated in a county goes first to cover the cost of the KRM line to connect the three counties (.15%) and the remaining portion stays in the county to be managed by a local management board (of elected officials). Second, the RTA is firmly grounded in reality and has political support from multiple levels of government as well as regional support. A county itself can not pass a sales tax, it needs state approval, and the RTA has laid a plan to do just that. Milwaukee County passing a sales tax could fix our local bus system, but it still doesn’t address regional connectivity issues, the RTA presents a great start to connecting the entire region.
The committee members raised legitimate concerns over representation, but failed to agree that a solution has been put in place. The solution, which we believe is satisfactory, is two-fold. First, for any RTA action a super-majority is required, so while there may not be representation by population, the suburbs do not possess any controlling power over Milwaukee because Milwaukee County through the Governor’s appointee (who has to be from the city), the County Executive, and the Mayor’s appointee have enough power to block any anti-city moves. Second, once the tax is enacted it will be controlled by a local committee. Money will be spent to support regional connectivity in the form of the KRM, but the rest is completely under local control.
Furthermore it’s not clear what the current management of the County Board is giving residents. Yes, an advisory sales tax referendum has been passed (and kudos to the board for having the courage to override Walker’s veto and put it on the ballot), but to-date they have allowed the system to crumble and become an embarrassment to the region. There was a claim by Supervisor Mayo that in 2003 Milwaukee had the best system in the country, but unfortunately it’s not 2003 anymore and the blame Scott Walker game is just that, a game. They have allowed Walker to balance the budget by reducing the system to shambles and raising fares, and have failed to make it a priority until now. The RTA has been at work since before the 1% measure was put on the ballot trying to find a sustainable funding source and Holloway’s labeling of the RTA as “carpet baggers” was about as accurate as the Chicago Tribune calling the 1948 election for Dewey instead of Truman.
It was extremely dissappointing to see that the County Board is drunk with power following the passing of the advisory referendum. They are not in a position to get a 1% sales tax enacted to support MCTS, and from the meeting it was clear they don’t have a state lobbying plan in place to get the funding before the system completely implodes. It was, however, refreshing to see Supervisor Chris Larson support the RTA and have a legitimate interest in a compromise that will work for both his constituents and the region. It would be wise for the rest of the board to follow Larson and push for a compromise that leverages the extremely powerful lobbying position of regional support through the RTA and local support through the referendum for a legitimate transit funding solution for the Milwaukee region.