It's time for Wisconsin's local leaders to admit that streetcars and trains are a big part of the cure for our collective automobile habit.
Back to the future
Senator Judy Robson
Transportation has been vital for economic growth throughout our nation’s history.
The transcontinental railroads built in the 19th century linked our east and west coasts to our nation’s heartland. The state highway and interstate highway system built in the 20th century allows cars and semitrailers to travel from coast to coast and border to border.
The next great wave of transportation will be somewhat of a return to our roots: streetcars for intra-city travel and rail to get from city to city. Rail, like the highway system, is a tool for economic growth.
The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee recently approved using $810 million in federal stimulus funds to build high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison and $12 million to improve the tracks between Milwaukee and Chicago.
The move toward rail is driven by a number of factors, including a desire to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, to reduce highway congestion, and to reduce the amount of money we spend on gas.
To help Wisconsin communities better plan for their transit needs, a legislative study committee spent nine months developing legislation authorizing regional transit authorities.
The legislation provides a structure for local governments to join together to plan for, pay for, and develop transit systems. The bill leaves the decision-making in the hands of local governments. It had a public hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee and is awaiting a public hearing by the Joint Finance Committee.
Many communities in Wisconsin are looking for options because they will lose federal operating funds after the 2010 census is complete. They will be pushed out of their funding tier, and there is no source of federal funds to make up the difference.
Communities in Wisconsin currently can join together to provide transit services, but without RTAs the process can be cumbersome at best and paralyzing at worst.
Many communities in Wisconsin already have a vision for what they want their transit systems to look like. The last state budget bill authorized RTAs in southeastern Wisconsin, Dane County, the Chippewa Valley, and the Bayfield/Ashland area. A stand-alone bill that was introduced this session would create a Fox Cities Regional Transit Authority.
The RTA bill allows communities to choose the mix of rail, bus service, park and ride facilities, and other transit services that works best for that region. What works for the Chippewa Valley may not be right for the Fox Valley.
No region needs to start from scratch. The Center for Transit-Oriented Development is a national nonprofit that helps communities develop public transit systems that attract economic growth.
When companies look for places to locate, they consider a number of factors including cost of living, access to knowledge institutions and knowledge workers, and the quality of local and regional transportation.
Wisconsin has a broad and deep talent pool. Every year our universities and technical colleges turn out thousands of highly skilled and highly educated workers. Companies across the U.S. know this, and so Wisconsin is a very attractive place to locate. Having solid transit systems in place will make our state even more attractive.
If mass transit is convenient and affordable, more people will use it rather than driving as part of the one-driver-per-car commute. The goal is to create communities where walking, bicycling and rail are as safe and convenient as driving a car.
February 21, 2010
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Judy Robson lives in Beloit and represents most of Rock County and the northwest portion of Walworth County in the Wisconsin Senate's 15th district.