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The Great Transit Debate: Who Are You Going To Believe?

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on January 27, 2010

From Milwaukee County First:

Finally, after more than a year after Milwaukee County citizens approved a referendum to have a dedicated sales tax for the parks and transit systems and to give some much needed property tax relief, it looks like this might be actually acted on.

Granted, it is not in the form that was approved in November 2008, but it basically does the same thing, or as they say, it’s “close enough for government work.”

Naturally, pro-transit groups, environmental groups, and many other civic minded people are in favor of both of the bills.  Also, many leading Democrats are in favor  of this bill as well.

However, we realize that there are some that would dismiss these groups, including (or is it especially?) Milwaukee County First, out of hand.  Unfortunately for the naysayers, we are not the only ones on board with this idea.

Almost two years ago, the non-partisan Public Policy Forum was already sounding the alarm of the consequences of not taking steps to stabilize and even rebuild the transit system, calling the current situation “a crisis.”

Much more recently, as in last week, Governor Doyle was joined by a number of business leaders arguing for the need for the transit sales tax to be approved, as highlighted in the pro-transit bill editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“This is a priority. This is not a want. It is an absolute need for business in our area,” said Tim Sullivan, CEO of Bucyrus International.

“It’s really frustrating to see the constant deterioration of public transit as fares go up,” said Ed Zore, CEO and president of Northwestern Mutual Life, adding that the funding and regional planning provided in the proposed legislation were needed to “coordinate the system or pretty soon we’ll be without one.”

“We have 10,000 employees in the area and shoppers alike who need transit,” said Roundys Chairman and CEO Robert Mariano. Public transportation “reflects the way an area looks upon its people . . .  our citizens deserve better . . . . It’s critical that this legislation be passed in the spring 2010 legislative session.”

And Jeff Van Konigsveld, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 430, urged lawmakers to note that the issue cuts across all socioeconomic and political lines and affects people of all ages, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Citing the economic development and jobs potential linked to other regional transit networks, he urged lawmakers to “understand that this is not a partisan issue but a path to the future . . . a game-changer.”

Those leaders, and the political leaders who joined them Tuesday and advocates such as the group Transit Now, are right. If the foremost issue of these times is jobs – and it is – a sound transit system is a necessary component of maintaining and creating jobs.

One would think that a group that includes environmentalists, progressives, politicians, labor leaders and top business executives, groups that are normally at odds with each other, to come together on this one topic would hold considerable weight.  Despite this wide and diverse group of supporters, there are still some that continue to argue against the transit bill.

Most notably, one of the most outspoken opponents is Scott Walker.  But one must take Walker’s protests with a grain of salt.  He has admitted that the transit system needs help, but has not come up with one viable solution in eight years on how to do this without raising someone’s taxes, or selling off valuable assets for a one time spending use, which does nothing to solve the problem, but merely kicks it down the road a little bit.

Furthermore, Walker’s agenda is not pure.  He is currently running for governor on a “no tax increase” platform, and supporting this bill would not sit well with his base supporters.  Regardless of the consequences Milwaukee County and its citizens would have to suffer, he is not going to support anything in Milwaukee County’s best interest if it goes against his political posturing.

Likewise, Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Rice has come out against the bill.  But like with Walker, Rice is beholden to the special interest-funded groups.  Nor has Rice offered any viable solution to the transit crisis.  It is merely more political posturing than leadership.

State Senator Mary Lazich (or one of her aides, most likely) also wrote a piece against this bill.  She comes out against the sales tax, but her issue appears to be most focused on the RTA of the future than the current crisis.  For that, she offers no solution.

But as with Walker and Rice, we also have to look at the source.  Lazich is not highly esteemed, even among her own colleagues in Madison:

Garnering the third-most votes for worst legislator was Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin). “Literally nuts,” pronounced one GOP activist. “There may be no legislator taken less seriously.”

So, who are you going to believe?

As for me, I would have to say that established business leaders and non-partisan groups that have actually taken the time to study the problem and go through all of the possible solutions holds much more credibility than a group of partisan politicians who have only their political and personal aspirations in mind, and not the best interest of the community.

If you are of like mind, call and/or email your state representative and your state senator and tell them that they must support the transit and the park bills.  Our jobs, our economy, and our community need it to happen, and happen soon.

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