Pay-to-play limits public transit funding

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Public transit in Milwaukee narrowly escaped the ax thanks to a creative, last-minute funding strategy by County Executive Chris Abele.

When it comes to getting where she has to go, Jamecca Cohee, 30, relies on the Milwaukee County Public Transit System for “everything, every day – Monday through Sunday,” she says.

The inner-city mother of three uses the bus for getting to work, shopping and taking her kids to school. Public transportation also takes her family to medical appointments, to visit relatives and to church.

In recent years, Cohee and other public transit riders have contended with continual rate increases, ever-longer wait times between buses and decreasing passenger safety. Every two years when biennial state budget talks draw near, they face threats of yet higher rates and further service reductions.

On Dec. 3, Cohee participated in a “community listening session” on Milwaukee’s public transit crisis, held at the Washington Park Senior Center. The event’s purpose was “to provide a place for people who rely on public transportation to be able to demonstrate why they rely on it,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, economic justice director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Her group is one of many that have joined forces to get the Assembly to create a funding mechanism for safe, reliable and affordable public transportation for people who can’t drive – a group composed mostly of the poor, elderly and disabled.

The event was titled “Still Fighting for a Seat on the Bus,” a reference to Rosa Parks’ history-changing refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama on Dec. 1, 1955. Advocates say public transit users are still victims of racism, because they are largely people of color whose transportation needs are wholly overlooked by lawmakers. At the same time, leaders of both parties in Madison lavish public funding on highway construction, much of which is demonstrably unnecessary.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, one of the event’s sponsors, also is part of a lawsuit filed in August to force the state to reconsider spending $1.7 billion on the reconstruction of Milwaukee’s so-called “Zoo Interchange” while slashing budgets for mass transit and road maintenance, such as filling in potholes.

“When our government makes decisions that disproportionately impact a certain group of people, particularly by race, we have to go through the courts to shine light on that,” says Stacy Harbaugh, communication director for the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our tax dollars are for all of us to use, but Milwaukee is taking money away from the people who need it the most.”

The ACLU and Midwest Environmental Advocates contend that WisDot overlooked federal laws mandating that the allocation of federal transportation dollars must take into account a proposed project’s impact on the environment as well as on communities of color – neither of which WisDot did in its Zoo Interchange planning, Epps-Addison says. (Typically, 75 to 90 percent of interstate road funding comes from the federal government.)

The Zoo Interchange improvements will benefit commuters to the lily-white – and blood red – suburb of Waukesha. Although that fast-growing area is home to many new jobs, it is almost impenetrable for people who don’t drive – and the majority of people who live there aim to keep it that way, according to public transit advocates. It’s not by chance that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, a quasi-governmental organization, is headquartered and holds its public meetings in Waukesha.

The suit was filed on behalf of MICAH and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

But the Zoo Interchange case is only one of many highway projects that suck money away from public transportation funding. Only about 6.5 percent of the state’s annual transportation dollars were allocated for public transit under the 2011-13 biennial budget, and Republicans want to push that number even lower, according to Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He estimated that only $212 million of the $3.3 billion allocated for transportation in the state this year went to public transit.

Many drivers believe that public transportation should have to pay for itself, arguing that their gas taxes pay for the roads they use. But that’s just a myth perpetrated by Big Oil and highway builders. In 2009, a national commission estimated that fuel taxes and other user fees accounted for less than 60 percent of transportation system revenue.

The majority of funding for public transit, as well as highway and airport costs, comes from property and other taxes from the general fund that people are forced to pay into whether they drive, fly or take the bus. 

Politics drives roads

Although Wisconsin highways appear to be among the least congested in the nation, fast travel times have failed to slake state lawmakers’ thirst for road building. In fact, even though highway traffic leveled off in 2004 – and is projected to remain near constant through 2023 – proposals for new roads and highway improvements continue to multiply. The reason is that massive amounts of public money are at stake, and highway builders pay lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle handsomely for the chance to stuff some of that money in their pockets. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s family and countless other politically connected families have become millionaires giving legislators money in exchange for lucrative road-building projects, whether those projects are needed or not.

“The people who build the highways have taken complete control of the state highway budget,” Hiniker says. “They’re essentially the highest paid state employees.”

Hiniker describes the state’s highway builders as a perpetual bipartisan lobbying machine. “In Wisconsin, the road builders have the strongest lock of any state that I’ve seen,” he says.

He says the scenario works like this: Road builders get rich off projects paid for by taxpayers. The builders then use their taxpayer-generated wealth to lobby and contribute to elected officials, who in turn reward them with more projects.

“The taxpayers are subsidizing the political contributions that road builders give to candidates who promise them more money to build more roads,” Hiniker summarizes.

Wisconsin ranks 13th in the nation on highway spending per capita – or 24 percent above the national average, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group. The actual need for building a particular highway project in Wisconsin is only a secondary consideration. The more pressing concern for lawmakers is the projected payout, according to public transit advocates.

As a result, Wisconsin is laced with “highways to nowhere.” For instance, there’s the $25 million interchange project in a cornfield 30 miles west of Milwaukee to provide easier access to a failed development called “Pabst Farms.” The development was never built due to the real estate crash, but that didn’t stop Gov. Scott Walker from pushing funding forward shortly after turning down $800 million in federal dollars for a high-speed rail project.

There’s a proposed $140 million project to widen Highway 23 in a rural area between Plymouth and Fond du Lac that would shorten drive times by no more than four minutes for the relatively small number of users, according to traffic studies. That project is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.

Despite the waste such projects represent, they are inevitably backed by local newspapers and positioned by local leaders as job creators. In reality, the lion’s share of jobs created by such projects goes to out-of-state planners, vendors and workers, analysts say.

Transit advocacy

Until recently, public transit riders had few champions and, in a political system in which money commands attention, almost no influence. Milwaukee residents like Cohee simply can’t compete with the rich special interests that drive the planning process.

Milwaukee has no regional transit authority to raise money and conduct local public transportation planning.

But the groups that organized the Dec. 3 listening session have joined with other grassroots progressive groups to change the power dynamic. They already flexed their muscle dramatically in the 2012 general election. Cohee was part of a program called “Ride and Register,” in which she and other transit users registered voters on the bus. They also asked their fellow riders to volunteer to fight for public transit funding and to get people to the polls.

Epps-Addison says the project yielded 700 rides to the polls on Election Day and created a base of supporters to lobby lawmakers on public transit funding. The project was a partnership between Citizens Action and the Transit Riders Union.

Gary Goyke, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association, says that public transit advocates are “in a better position” this year than last, when it took some last-minute creative funding by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to save Milwaukee from 30-percent cuts in mass transit. As a result, in 2013 there will be no fare increases or route cuts in Milwaukee County.

“We are determined,” Goyke says. “We are not going to give up.”

Good for business

Goyke says Walker has created a transportation commission that understands the benefits of public transit for the business sector and “is acknowledging that it erred in the past and is not going to take public transit out of the transportation fund” – as Walker sought to do in the last budget. Goyke says he’s encouraged by the selection of Mark Gottlieb, a Milwaukeean, as secretary of the Department of Transportation.

In their efforts, public transportation advocates hope to benefit from the passion of new and recently elected representatives from Milwaukee, including Goyke’s son Evan Goyke. Chris Larson, the new Senate minority leader, and others introduced a bill last January called the Workforce Mobility Act.

“Of the 140,000 rides provided daily by the Milwaukee County Transit Systems, 39 percent are commuters traveling to and from work – and for many this is their only feasible transit option,” Larson said. “The demand for viable transportation options is clearly there and we owe it to our workers and local businesses to provide the necessary support to our public transit infrastructure.”

While unpopular with the current leaders in Madison, public transit is widely recognized as the wave of the future across the country – and around the globe. Nationally, transit trips have far outpaced the growth of auto miles since 1995, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

Public transit is simply more sensible, its advocates say. According to their statistics, it saves 3.4 billion gallons of oil each year in the United States, prevents 541 million hours of traffic delay and reduces global warming pollution by 26 million tons.

“Ultimately, it’s the demographics that will change things,” says WisPRIG executive director Bruce Speight. “The demand for transit is exploding. If you build an infrastructure that is unfriendly to young people and old people, they will leave. Right now (Republican leaders) are building an infrastructure for the white middle class in the suburbs – for a disappearing status quo.

“The state of Wisconsin went for Obama and Baldwin. More votes were cast for Democrats than Republicans in state races … despite unprecedented voter suppression. The Republicans are holding on now through gerrymandering, but unless they get real with their policies, they’re not going to be able to hold on to their seats even in a gerrymandered state.”