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"Its a huge milestone." Regional Transit Authority board tags rental cars (Jan. 31) - In search for a fund source after hesitation in December, 2006 by at least two board members, the RTA Board for the fledgling three-county transit agency voted January 30 to raise its existing fund source from $2 per rental to $15 per vehicle rental. Present estimates anticipate that will suffice for defraying local share of the predicted start up and operating expenses of KRM commuter trains.
However, the December, 2004 concerns when Racine Mayor Gary Becker first broached the tax issue persist. They were noted in a Kenosha News editorial which rightly observed past loss of public confidence during the Miller Park tax decision clouds the outlook of many in elected office. Thus RTA deciding to skip the obstacles to adoption for a sales tax, which won out over a gas tax when staff advising the RTA studied other transit agencies elsewhere and learned from others' experience.
For many avid boosters and advocates for KRM trains, the reaction reported by Racine Journal Times of that city's RTA board member is typical. Were getting commuter rail, Jody Karls exclaimed to the Journal Times. Its a huge milestone for Southeastern Wisconsin. There have been folks working on commuter [rail] for decades. This is really the biggest step thats ever been made; its huge.
Indeed. For 30 years and more, dating back to Rep. Les Aspin arranging a demonstration train ride in the late 1970s, less than ten years after Chicago & Northwestern Rwy. halted its last passenger trains on the line. That excursion lacked enough local support to move ahead with ambitions to resume train service north of Kenosha, and in later years the track was reduced in usefulness to handle only freight, then to handle less freight as a parallel route several miles west became higher priority. Former mayor Owen Davies was among the hardy few persisting in the quest to regain train service for his city, and he has been joined in his dedication by others, including the small band at KenRail.
Corporate support, notably Racine companies and its business chamber group, and broad acceptance among environmental, civic and business factions along the lakeshore have been crucial to reaching this milestone. TransitNOW of SE Wisconsin has been at the forefront for more than seven years, delivering a wide range of expertise and of diligence to an often splintered array of issues and concerns. Both its executive director and communications director earned much grounds for praise, upon achieving this new, lofty plateau.
To TransitNOW, to the late Les Aspin and to all working longer, more steadily than KenRail to achieve this milestone, we salute you and simply say "Thank you."
KRM funds debated at RTA board meeting (Feb 20) - Acknowledging need for local transit to connect commuters with homes, trains and workplaces, Southeast Wisconsin RTA discussed funding for KRM and heard its Milwaukee county member offer alternatives affecting its Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) at its Feb. 19 meeting hosted by City of Racine. Racine Journal Times reports that Mayor Gary Becker was receptive to "virtually any funding method that helps Milwaukee," noting further that KRM funding proposed from a car rental fee might show surplus after commuter rail expenses are paid. That prospective surplus could revert to the county where initially collected, Mayor Becker declared. Milwaukee county's RTA board member has voiced doubts about the rental fee fully covering KRM local share of expenses.
Increasng the car rental fee still must reach the Legislature, where state Sen. John Lehman of Racine predicts, "It's not something that's going to end up languishing in some committee." However, tardy introduction of funding alternatives has bogged down progress of the RTA board and its primary project, KRM commuter trains. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the same meeting, reporting more detail about differing views in its hometown about metropolitan transit about how fully transit should be funded. Kenosha News, which does not post its articles online, quoted Kenosha Area Transit director Len Brandrup doubting that a proposal to sell naming rights to each KRM station could win acceptance. Milwaukee Brewers' home field, Miller Park, generated about 10 percent of its capitalization from sale of naming rights subsequent to imposition of a highly controversial one-tenth of one percent sales tax for five counties, including Milwaukee and Racine, in the mid-1990s.
In Sunday editions early in February, Journal Sentinel editorailized for a regional approach to KRM funding and to metro transit, suggesting the mayor and the county executive "should rethink their positions," which differ from each other and from a December, 2006 funding proposal agreed upon by the RTA's other members.
Milwaukee suburbs catch KRM fever (March 6) - Joining a rising chorus of support among newspapers, south suburban Greendale NOW enthused late in February for the KRM proposal. "Growth without investment is impossible. Investments in things like KRM keep southeastern Wisconsin relevant and growing."
In consequence of business leaders urging Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board to publicize need for concerted action to match promises, the regional Milwaukee 7 marketing project heard again that KRM is at the top of CEO agendas for spurring regional growth. Sharpening the point further, other comments indicated a one- to two-year timeframe for action is necessary to keep regional growth momentum going.
Those private sector advocates spoke after Racine county board voted 19-4 in support for KRM, while Milwaukee county board struggled over how to fund its weakening bus service, Milwaukee County Transit System. Milwaukee city and county have wrangled over how to spend a federal allotment, and their impasse has reached out to entangle progress of KRM, though KRM funding is not in any way reliant on that allotment.
Suburbs on KRM route waver, though Greendale enthused (March 19) - Favorable comment cited here two weeks ago from a Greendale weekly doesn't extend to suburbs south of Milwaukee actually on the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee route.
In fact, the several cities represented in SEWRPC proceedings by Milwaukee county since 1997 during study and preparation seem to have set it all aside, now offering a variety of ideas, wants, and just plain gripes about what else the money could fund, where it cannot come from, and so on.
In a community paper published by Journal Communications, Oak Creek NOW quoted South Milwaukee Mayor depicting KRM trains as a "positive thing for business", adding that "[p]eople understand the commercial benefits, but the residents of South Milwaukee don't want to pay for it out of their pockets."
At the county level, Milwaukee county board voted last week to instruct its RTA board member that Milwaukee County Transit System funding should have priority in RTA funding decisions. SE Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority is a three-county agency established in 2005 by the Legislature specifically to examine transit needs and funding for the three lakeshore counties. It was sought by KRM advocates as the formative step leading to oversight of an eventual three-county commuter rail service, with inclusion of each local bus service as feeder to the KRM commuter rail operations. Milwaukee County Board later passed a resolution endorsing RTA formation, while also interjecting its own preference for attention to its county-owned, contractor-managed metro bus service.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has targeted MCTS for budget cutbacks more severely than other county expenses. Thus the demand for RTA to first fund MCTS buses amounts to a maneuver to shift from Milwaukee county taxpayers to the three-county agency funding burdens which Racine and Kenosha taxpayers continue to shoulder for their bus services. It seeks preferential treatment for Milwaukee, and does so simply because its county executive has a vendetta against public transit, i.e. buses in Milwaukee.
Such swirling maneuvers and abrupt interjections and retractions are common in Milwaukee and its policy-makiing. A late-February recap by the transportation writer for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sketched inability to reach consensus about federal funds meant to upgrade local transit. The article quoted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lamenting such confounding of local and regional action, ""It is immensely important to me to end this embarrassing debate over how to spend" that federal allocation, which a former mayor, county executive and Wisconsin governor agreed eight years ago would be spent by mutual agreement of their successors. Those federal funds are separate from any KRM funding, although a few in Milwaukee have sought to entangle the commuter rail project and its advocates in their local brand of indecision-making.
RTA Board sticks with funding compromise, shrugs at distractions (March 20) - At its scheduled meeting on Monday, March 19, SouthEast Wisconsin RTA Board chose to stick with the car rental tax subtituted as a compromise in December. According to news reports, including one by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, alternate taxes lack complete support among all seven board members, including the initial staff recommendatin for a 0.5 percent sales tax.
Rejection of that funding method, widely used reliably for other metro transit operations in the U.S.A., by Milwaukee county induced other board members to search hastily for a compromise. Milwaukee county's dissent from a sales tax, vetted earlier in 2006 during staff presentations, arose from County Executive Scott Walker's insistence that no tax impact his constituents. Subsequently, City of Milwaukee parried with defensive moves to assure that its own spending priorities did not slip to secondary consideration, as Milwaukee county strives at simultaneously increasing financial support for its MCTS bus service, persisting in conformance to County Executive Walker's no-increase tax pledge, and sustaining a useful level of MCTS bus service.
According to Kenosha News coverage of Monday's RTA board meeting, a Milwaukee City Council letter to the RTA Board asserted several requirements it expected of the RTA specific to Milwaukee, including opposition to reliance on the car rental tax. Kenosha News further recounted the December surprise, when expected consensus on a 0.5 percent sales tax split, and quoted board Chairman Karl Ostby in mid-March, "Unfortunately, we do not have local consensus on the sales tax option."
"The rest of the [RTA] region sees the sales tax as the only viable option," city of Kenosha board member Len Brandrup told Kenosha News. Mr. Brandrup heads the local bus operation, and thus views the bus-rail funding issue from a perspective comparable to MCTS management. Except for two Milwaukee board members, others on the board continue favoring the staff-vetted proposal for a sales tax to fund KRM (0.05 percent) and additional authorization for each county to fund its local transit at any level up to 0.45 percent.
Steering committee Chairman Fred Patrie pointed out in the Kenosha News story, "The funding plan has to be decided" in the next two board meetings.
Faster trains for America in limelight nationwide (Mar 23) - "High Speed Rail" (HSR) has been discussed much at countless times and in various places over the past 100-plus years, perhaps with greatest marvel after Engine 999 surpassed 100 mph and peaked at 112.5 miles per hour - in 1893! During the first half of the 20th century, one railroad ran passenger trains New York-Chicago making limited stops along the way, competing against a rival company for fastest scheduled pace in that heavily traveled market. West of Chicago, legendary "Super Chief" trains reached Los Angeles in less than 40 hours, thanks to long stretches at speeds approaching 100 mph. But only across Wisconsin was the competition most fierce, as sketched in a recap of Chicago, Burlington & Quincy RR startup of diesel-powered trains versus mile-a-minute average speed for Chicago & Northwestern Rwy. And Milwaukee Road held public attention by competing with its Hiawatha trains in the Chicago-Twin Cities market, routinely topping 100 mph day after day.
In 2007 however, HSR means different speeds to different people in different places. In Japan and western Europe it means speed above 150 mph; in Great Britain speed of 120 mph or more. In the NorthEast Corridor of the U.S.A., Amtrak Acela trains strive for stretches of track allowing 150 mph, but find them much less than original infrastructure goals predicted. So a host of organizations and elected officials focused on HSR for parts of America in recent days, even as Amtrak, the nation's designated passsenger train company, struggled merely to survive with enough federal funding. A Florida congressman touted HSR for his long, narrow state; California's govenor heard demands that he preserve and expand legislated ambiitons for HSR there. And in Chicago, once hub for so many train travelers crisscrossing America, a series of three day-long sessions sought to inspire renewed attention -- and spending -- on High Speed Rail. The first was by invitation-only, the second an event aimed at transportation careerists, and on Saturday the Nat'l Assoc'n of RR Psgrs regional meeting collaborates with Midwest HSR Assoc'n.
The Saturday session sets a topic goal of 110 mph trains for Midwest corridors, on routes radiating from Chicago. One route envisions resuming 100 mph-plus speed not seen since heyday of Milwaukee Road, south and west of Milwaukee, probably aiming first to achieve prompt, fast Milwaukee-Madison service and eventually perhaps regaining the 100 mph-plus pace to and from the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
Whether the Midwest states can focus money and talent to achieve that worthy ambition remains to be seen. There is precedent for pace-setting in mid-America, but memories of its zenith are dimming like the vacuum tubes of a 1930s-era radio.
KRM fund action awaits Legislature consensus (Apr 21) - As recent editorials by lakeshore city newspapers clearly show, KRM has the full support of the major cities which began the feasibility study odyssey in the 1990s. (Refer to links above, right of photo.) Consensus has emerged among mayors, community leaders, and corporate executives.
However, a late 2006 change to the funding source recommended to legislators has raised doubts, and introduced enough uncertainty to stall legislative progress.
Kenosha News reports Friday, Apr. 20, that legislators continue seeking consensus about the RTA recommendation, while KRM critics began attacking RTA spending for informing legislators and the general public about its work. In actual fact, KRM began as a citizen-based proposal which later gained significant corporate sponsorship for informing interested groups and news media. None of those initial supporters have a formal role to substitute for RTA fulfilling the Legislature mandate to report its progress and its final regional proposal.
Racine reader poll sweeps KRM, Hiawatha trains to top choice (Apr. 25) - Racine Journal Times turned attention to how its Web site visitors and readers would most like future transit to link them with Midwest megalopolis Chicago in a recent poll. Journal Times takes decidedly quixotic samplings that have also asked whether theft of $1,000 would provoke reporting the thief to police and which "American Idol" contestant seemed poised to win.
For visitors to this site, the news commanding attention was in the Journal Times poll asking whether any of three bus options or Hiawatha Service by Amtrak or planned KRM commuter trains wouild best use tax dollars for bettering access to Chicago. Between the two train choices, 85 percent favored spending tax funds to ease and speed north-souh travel to the Windy City virtually 70 percent for KRM trains and almost 15 percent for Hiawathas at nearby Sturtevant.
Racine and its newspaper are among the most tax-conscious scrutineers in the state, and its corporations among the most frugal at generating their gross sales. Bestowing on commuter trains and on Amtrak their overwhelming confidence in cost-efficient travel for 60-some miles to and from Chicago is a badge of recognition all train advocates can highlight and celebrate.
Two strong Milwaukee civic voices join in KRM support (May 14) - NAACP Milwaukee branch and ATU Local 998 joined in the chorus supporting KRM as the unifying component for three-county transit in the years ahead, authoring a "Morning Mail" letter to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Click here for its complete text.). Key highlights of the joint support declaration include:
City of Milwaukee, with a population about four times larger than combined population of Kenosha and Racine, has grappled with several transit project proposals in years past. While Racine and Kenosha local bus operations have found ways to replace buses as they wear out, Milwaukee County Transit System has not been as successful at modernizing its fleet. Daily operating expenses also have come under increasing pressure most clearly at the Milwaukee local bus operation.
Concurrent with tightening transit budgets, regional planners and key elected officials have been joined by a broad array of KRM endorsers, listed by TransitNOW. View the entire letter by ATU Local 998 President Richard Riley and by NAACP Milwaukee branch President Jerry Hamilton by clicking here.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's edited adaptation of the NAACP/ATU Local 998 letter is posted at its site, click here.
Kenosha Area Business Alliance renews KRM support (May 17) - Legislators for Kenosha were reminded recently of support by the Kenosha Area Business Alliance for proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter train service. A Kenosha News story, published May 16, detailed reiteration of KABA support and prominently noted the group's aversion to property taxes paying for the 10 percent local share of the project.
Local share funding among the three counties has been entangled in past months by a late-2006 switch in RTA board preference for raising the local share funds. Shifting transit funding from property tax rolls to another source, as most other metro areas in the U.S.A. already do, was an early priority for the RTA, and its initial goal was a small sales tax (0.5 percent) to fund KRM trains and local bus expenses in each principal city and county. Last minute dissension about that funding caused RTA to change its funding proposal to a car rental tax, currently at $2 each time a vehicle is rented in the three counties. Thus, KABA's resolution in support of KRM does not confine the RTA board or the Legislature to one or another of those alternatives. It does reiterate the original intent of easing property tax burden by replacing current practice with a more viable, more typical source for transit funding.
KABA first took a public stance supporting KRM in August, 2002. A member of its board, local banker Karl Ostby, was appointed to the RTA from Kenosha County and later elected by RTA board members as their chairman.
A Kenosha News editorial May 19 echoed the full-fledged support of KABA, linked from here.
KRM fee goes through partisan grinder with other state transportation projects (June 1) - The Legislature's budget-writing Joint Committee on Finance chewed through a series of transportation decisions on May 31, grinding each item in a partisan 8-8 deadlock. The two Racine members typified the division: Sen. John Lehman, who introduced a motion to increase the car rental fee as interim funding for KRM, voted opposite from Asssembly Rep. Robin Vos, who explains he is guarding Wisconsin's business climate against more taxes.
Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce (RAMAC) president Roger Caron credited Senator Lehman and Assembly Rep. Jim Kreuser, from Kenosha, for their leading efforts on behalf of the funding needed to take KRM to its next phase. "The next step could be the right one around this anyway," Mr. Caron said to Racine Journal Times. Sen. Lehman echoed that hope for eventual KRM funding, "Don't write it off yet."
The fee contested by Rep. Vos and others joining him in the tie vote substituted for the original funding arrangement proposed by the RTA board last December, raising less funding and narrowed from also underwriting local bus services as originally intended. The car rental fee increase stalled by the tie vote originated with County Executives Scott Walker of Milwaukee and William McReynolds of Racine, Journal Times reports. Wisconsin elects county exectuives on a non-partisan ballot.
Kenosha News, which has also offered supportive editorials endorsing KRM, quoted Rep. Kreuser predicting further consideration of the car rental fee. "I think the business communities are starting to rally and encourage people to move forward on this," he said. KRM enjoys support from environmental and civic groups, from organized labor, from local chambers of commerce, and from key corporate executives. An out-of-state group calling itself Club for Growth has channeled money for anti-KRM radio ads through a Sun Prairie, WI office, more than 70 miles away in suburban Madison.
Business, county government, labor council support RTA, KRM (June 21) - County supervisors voted unanimously for the resolution previously endorsed by three committees at the regular Kenosha County Board meeting Tuesday evening, June 19. Kenosha News reported several viewpoints coalesced to achieve the undivided support for KRM, ranging from concern about burdening renters of cars to concern that funding delay could unravel the carefully crafted regional progress thus far achieved.
Kenosha Central Labor Council also voted unanimously at its regular meeting several miles away to endorse the KRM project and the car rental fee RTA seeks to fund it.
Kenosha Area Business Alliance has been on record in support for KRM, according the southern county among the three counties a range of formal support by business, government and organized labor.
Kenosha County committee endorses RTA en route to broader transit goals (June 14) - The County Board's Finance Committee passed a resolution supporting the three-county Regional Transit Authority and its most visible proposal, KRM commuter trains, during a regular committee meeting.
Unlike state legislators, county supervisors and county executives in Wisconsin are elected on a non-partisan ballot. Partisan divisions within the Madison capital have become the overriding basis for votes about funding transit and transportation, including Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commter trains. Kenosha News quotes one legislator declaring, "While it might be of benefit to the Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee area, we have funding problems in northern Wisconsin that we believe ought to be taken care of first." RTA funding considered on May 31 by Joint Committee on Finance affected only car rentals for business use in the three RTA counties: Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.
Senate takes KRM step too tall for Joint Finance Committee (June 27) - A host of issues such as a statewide health care initiative dominated state Senate budget deliberations in the aftermath of the draft created in the Joint Committee on Finance, which every two years is assigned responsibility for devising a Legislature starting point for the next biennial budget. Racine Journal Times reports that a majority in the Senate concurred with an item introduced by Sen. John Lehman, Racine county, which bumps up the car rental fee first enacted by the previous Legislature to pay for expanded RTA activity. Specifically, the $13 increase to a total of $15 will fund RTA sufficiently to begin matching federal funds for the long-sought KRM commuter train project. The federal portion is tentative, pending evaluation of the project's merits, which are generally regarded as quite favorable by visiting transit experts, regional planners that vetted the proposal over the past four years, and by 70 percent of respondents to a Racine Journal Times online poll.
Popular sentiment is less clearcut in Kenosha, which already has commuter trains southward and in Milwaukee and suburbs, which remain mired in contentious dispute about issues large and small, a few even related to transit. Community leaders in environmental, business, civic organization, and organized labor sectors have endorsed the project and RTA funding for it.
State Assembly leaves KRM at station, awaiting another train (July 15) - Persisting in a governing style Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently described in terms of poker, the governor's budget item for KRM preliminary funding and Senate endorsement of a car rental fee large enough to begin capital investment in the project were 'called' by an Assembly budget lacking any provision for the car rental fee. Approval of the RTA-requested budget item suffered the fate of many others also sought by University of Wisconsin, state agencies and departments, and by myriad local governments. All their requests were excised from an Assembly budget plan that strives at all costs to spend less, to tax no more. Assembly members voted 51-44 for a budget differing substantially from Gov. Doyle and Senate alternatives. Journal Sentinel summarized in its lead news paragraph as a budget "that avoids tax increases by funding education, the University of Wisconsin System and local governments with much less."
Typical reaction appeared in Racine Journal Times after the Assembly budget vote, looking to the compromise needed at a conference committee table for eventual enactment of a state budget which sidesteps any 'winner takes all' outcome.
Hiawathas resume upward trend in rider count (July 16) - With the Sturtevant station near State Hwy 20 (at MP 63) nearing one year of use, rider count is trending upward as it has elsewhere along the Hiawatha Corridor. The year began with a slight drop in riders boarding at Sturtevant, compared to January, 2006. But the next four months saw monthly totals match or exceeed comparable 2006 totals, according to an informed WisDOT observer.
Cramped parking for train riders at Sturtevant effectively capped the number of weekday riders able to board at the old station, one mile closer to Chicago, almost four-tenths mile from STH 11. Closer proximity to a state highway and significantly more parking capacity open the way again for continued growth in Hiawatha riders boarding at the new location.
Overall, intermediate stations gained slightly in usage as percentage of the total rider count, with Milwaukee's downtown station undergoing major construction and therefore detouring some riders to better parking and boarding convenience at the southside Milwaukee Airport stop.
Milwaukee county executive invites neighbor transit-operating cities to consider a regional transit arrangement (Aug. 11) - One day after bus use in the Bayview district of Milwaukee drew public protest against looming Milwaukee County Transit System fare increases, rising to $2, and service cutbacks affecting a Bayview route among others, the county executive announced his invitation to other bus service operators in southeast Wisconsin to consider handing over bus operation to a four-county transit agency. The present RTA established by the Legislature in 2005 encompasses three of the four bus service areas, excepting Waukesha, which has shown no previous interest in relinquishing local control.
Within a day, Mayor Gary Becker of Racine accepted the invitation, while pointing out the property tax is not sufficient to shoulder costs for the idea. Mayor Becker in December, 2005 first floated the transit funding concern and indicated then that a penny gas tax might best achieve the regional transit needs, including KRM commuter trains. His trial balloon plummeted immediately in a hail of verbal blasts as numerous as discharged shot gun pellets.
Two days after the meeting invitation became public, a Kenosha News editorial observed that "[i]t's not necessarily a bad idea, and it's good that Walker is demonstrating an interest in regional transportation issues." But commuter trains, such as long-studied, thoroughly vetted KRM trains, have a proven economic development potential that buses alone lack. Summarizing its Friday article about local officials' reaction to the Walker invitation, the News cites County Executive Allan Kehl, Kenosha Area Transit Director Len Brandrup and Racine Mayor Becker emphasis on identifying a way to fund a regional transit system.
Feasibility study of a commuter train route linking the lakeshore cities began ten years ago, sponsored jointly by Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha and their respective three counties. In August, 2003 consensus was reached among all six sponsoring governments to go forward with the plan, crafted as the result of two studies by SouthEast Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC),
Mayors, county executives huddle, call mixed signals as they break to play yet another down (Aug. 21) - A scheduled meeting for Regional Transit Authority coincided with an unannounced huddle among the Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee mayors and county executives on Monday, August 20, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other newspapers for those cities reported. "The Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine and Kenosha mayors and county executives met for 1 1/2 hours to discuss the issues in a rare closed-door summit meeting called by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker," Journal Sentinel disclosed, though no explanation for advancing the date accompanied that disclosure. The previously announced session also sought by County Executive Scott Walker will meet as originally planned, on Sept. 4.
In addition to mayors and county executives for the original six funders of KRM studies, Journal Sentinel said others attending were RTA board chairman Karl Ostby ("I firmly believe that great cities have great transit systems."), Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson, responsible for its local bus service, Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, state Assembly Rep. Jeff Stone, and Waukesha Alderman Joe Pieper.
State Rep. Stone, representing three southwest suburbs of Milwaukee, has sought compromise with an eye toward achieving some progress. Journal Sentinel quotes his apt observation about this meeting of key principals and its signal of what might lie ahead: "It's a very delicate challenge to try to get to answers for such a broad group."
Can America offer fast intercity trains as it reshapes travel infrastructure spending? (Sept. 5) - Five weeks after the startling Interstate 35W bridge calamity near downtown Minneapolis awakened national attention to spending priorities, public debate about how America funds its air, surface (highway, rail) and waterway transportation has reached a truly intermodal level with mention of fast intercity trains by Kenosha (WI) News in an editorial. Kenosha News joined several newspapaers taking editorial inspiration from European startup of fast trains linking downtown London, England, with downtown Paris, France.
Almost ten years ago a major Midwest proposal for 110-mph trains titled the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative rose to mild prominence, but it's support dwindled despite another upswing in attention after the 9/11 airliners pushed American dependence on air travel to public scrutiny. Currently, ambitions for fast intercity trains outside the NorthEast Corridor, operated and mostly owned by Amtrak, are advocated by Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
By comparison, the region of the U.S.A. east of the Missisippi River approximates the land area of western Europe where fast intercity trains are operating or specifically planned for operation by 2020. The Economist, published in London, surveyed the European trains in July, 2007 in this overview of impending speed gains and travel markets being targeted long range. Business and leisure travel both are choosing fast European trains for distances comparable to many Amtrak routes already begun from Chicago, such as to Detroit, St. Louis, Carbondale. The Chicago-Milwaukee route served by Hiawathas is one of Amtrak's shortest corridors, qualifying it most readily for extension.
KRM proposal mired with other budget decisions; SEWPRC wings it (Sept 9) - A broad swath of financial decisions have been cut just above their roots by the Legislature impasse as University of Wisconsin students at all campuses begin classes lacking financial assistance routinely available for textbooks; as county, municipal and school district budget authors frame preliminary spending decisions for 2008; as SE Wisconsin RTA and SEWRPC hasten toward a closing window to submit a thoroughly integrated commuter train proposal, known as KRM, to the Federal Transit Administration.
Confronted with clogged processes for budgeting, some are dropping out or cobbling hastily invented alternates. SEWRPC has pressed ahead with its well-formed, comprehensive KRM plan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, submitting it Sept. 4 to FTA with expectation that local and state loose ends will be resolved by the time federal review of its application for matching funds reaches the decisive District of Columbia moment.
Another meeting, another week of budget deliberation (Sept. 21) - With Southeastern Wisconsin RTA pausing while legislators deliberated the multitude of differences throughout the entire budget, Kenosha News reports county executives and several mayors again met at the invitation of Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker to discuss among themselves how he might begin creating a RTA to fund Milwaukee County Transit Syatem. Mister Walker has spoken of a four-county RTA in recent weeks, following assertion ten months ago that no tax increase for the existing RTA was acceptable to him. At that time, the RTA created in 2005 by legislators was ready to propose a modest sales tax sufficient to fund KRM commuter trains start up capital costs and operating expenses later, with intention to shoulder local transit operations already in service with a goal of easing property tax burden. Wisconsin and the metro region marketed as the Milwaukee 7 stand almost alone among metropolitan regions by lacking a dedicated funding source, most often a sales tax elsewhere, for regional transit. RTA preparations for proposing a sales tax late in 2006 were in compliance with a Legislature mandate in the establishing legislation which directed SEW RTA to consider regional transit funding. The KRM project envisions strengthening inter-county commuting and leisure travel, with implicit recogniiton familiar to other regions that commuter rail reinforces each local transit system.
Meanwhile, fourteen corporate CEOs based in Racine have co-signed a letter to a key legislator among the eight conferring in committee about a state budget compromise, Racine Journal Times reports. Racine has been at the forefront of advocacy for the KRM commuter rail proposal since the first feasibility study, completed in 1998.
The letter says in part, according to Journal Times, "Commuter rail has a proven record of success around the country in densely populated areas like the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor. We believe KRM will provide a significant boost to the local communities along the route and our states overall economy.
"We urge the Legislature to adopt the recommendations of the (RTA) which are contained in the Senate version of the budget."
KRM gains dedicated News pages (Sept. 23) - Citing the importance of expected KRM commuter train approval as the first Southeastern Wisconsin RTA project, Kenosha News announced Sept. 22 creation of a single Web link direct to its accumulated coverage of the proposal during the past four months. The daily newspaper, in the only Wisconsin city currently served by scheduled commuter train service (to/from Chicago), informs readers in its annoucement that KRM has garnered interest "beyond the boundaries of southeast Wisconsin." Posting its latest coverage opens to readers beyond its print edition circulation a variety of articles which have reported news not published anywhere else and offered viewpoints from this city well-practiced at including commuter trains in its transit infrastructure. Some of them were linked from this page; now its full range of recent KRM coverage is available.
Kenosha News also points out its "Read & React" opportunity for reader comment is enabled for this Special Report section, once registration is completed. Registered readers are encouraged to submit opinions about the KRM project , the News annoucement concludes, by clicking on the "Read & React" button for the KRM section.
Hiawathas, Green Bay quarterback continue setting records (Sept. 24) - Brett Favre in his seventeenth season of NFL play as starting quarterback for the legendary big team from the modest-size Wisconsin city set another record yesterday playing against San Diego Chargers. Meanwhile, Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha Service operated by Amtrak for Wisconsin DOT and Illinois DOT continues its own string of ever-rising success.
Total number of August riders topped the record set a mere month earlier, achieving 58,295 Hiawatha riders overall. Milwaukee downtown station continues by a wide margin serving the most riders among Wisconsin stations, at just under 36 percent. General Mitchell Int'l Airport station rose again, nearing 10 percent of Hiawatha riders, while Sturtevant maintained its role contributing about 5 perent of total ridership.
Increased rider boardings and alightings at Sturtevant continue exceediing past years, with the expanded parking capacity at the new station earning the largest share of credit for the gains. Parking at the former station one mile south was limited to less than 70 vehicles. That is, steady increases at other stops are now matched by Sturtevant, which saw its percentage dip to 4.15 percent in July, 2005, as use at other stations rose to a new record at that time..
Amtrak Hiawathas continue string, Green Bay connects with Chicago, state Capitol off track (Oct. 10) - Football was in the Green Bay air several days ago and the Chicago NFL team grabbed one too many of them for a score, while connection from and to Milwaukee by Amtrak Hiawatha set another year-by-year record for September thanks to the ease riders enjoy riding past the congestion of "expressways." Exceeding the September, 2006, rider count by 1.7 percent, a total of 48,193 Hiawathas riders took comfort in riding instead of driving, confirming the WisDOT decison to add a fifth coach to the popular Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha trains.
Train travelers arriviing and leaving Milwaukee now observe the form designed for a more functional station there, which when complete in a few more weeks will serve intermodally for regional bus, Milwaukee County Transit System local bus, intercity bus to points such as the Fox River valley as far as Green Bay, and Amtrak long distance Empire Builder plus seven trains departing and seven arriving on the Hiawatha schedule. Wisconsin DOT provides progress reports about the downtown Milwaukee station construction; click here to visit a web page directory of photos.
Intention is to also present a modern travel experience in the new Milwaukee station for KRM commuters and Madson-Milwaukee train riders in coming years.
Progress is not universal, however. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports today that a $10 billion gap between competing state budget proposals has narrowed to less than one-half billion dollars as conferees remain at odds. The last sticking point which even Gov. Doyle has not patched together is about driving, riding and somehow getting somewhere. Journal Sentinel reports: "Republicans and Democrats have largely agreed on all other [budget] areas but transportation, which both sides have agreed to fight over later."
KRM flames out as ambitious growth items in budget plunge to Earth (Oct. 20) - Years of co-operation among Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee in support for KRM commuter trains incinerated like a falling NASA satellite with news that state legislators rejoiced at reaching a budget compromise 111 days past its due date, on July 1. Kenosha News reports Regional Transit Authority board chairman Karl Ostby observed at hearing the compromise ignored RTA funding recommendation, "I'm disappointed at the lack of pro-activity when it comes to economic development in Wisconsin."
The Legislature in 2005 created the three-county RTA with explicit mandate to develop a plan for transit expansion and a proposal for funding it. These lakeshore counties are the most adaptable to transit for commuting thanks to compact residential neighborhoods and employment for thousands in manufacturing decades ago, and now offer advantages compatible with reviving emphasis on transit as three-car garages and gas-guzzling commuting vehicles increasingly overburden household incomes. Prospective station locations along the 33-mile KRM route typically exploited that compactness, even in newer communities such as Caledonia, north of Racine.
Mister Ostby's disappointment was less than in Racine, where Journal Times headlined "KRM dead" above an article describing unwavering opposition by rural legislator Robin Vos. Both chambers of the Legislature were controlled by Rep. Vos' party in 2005, and only his own Assembly chamber is under its majority control currently. That majority insisted intransigently that any increase of any kind was a "tax increase," and thus unacceptable. A hospital tax proposed by Gov. Doyle and endorsed by the state's association of hospitals also fell victim to the Assembly stricture. Senator John Lehman, representing Racine area, told Racine Journal Times, ""In the midst of this billion-dollar discussion, the car rental fee [for funding the RTA] was an ideological roadblock."
Milwaukee support for the RTA and its KRM commuter trains was always critical, but wavered increasingly in recent months as County Executive Scott Walker first withdrew support for a sales tax after it was agreed by consensus among board members, then posed a series of alternatives culminating with an unvetted initiative to include Waukesha in any lakeshore transit plan. Wisconsin's most widely read newspaper, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, echoed statewide relief that a budget compromise was reached in its October 20 editorial. "If budgets are roadmaps that lay out a course for a state's future, then the compromise spending plan reached late Friday by Gov. Jim Doyle and legislative leaders takes Wisconsin mostly in the right direction," its editorial began, persisting in a car and highway metaphor prevalent in the shadow of an $800 million Marquette Interchange reconstruction. Loss of the RTA fee increase needed for KRM start up was acknowledged in passing, though the looming budget train wreck for Milwaukee County Transit System local bus service was not cited at all. MCTS funds have been cut and shifted elsewhere in county spending by the county executive for several years. Even so, Journal Sentinel concludes with a high-minded sentiment: "Some of the state's needs will go wanting in this budget - and those needs will not go away - but give Doyle, Robson and Huebsch credit for finding the high road at last." No lofty NASA-like goals for trains or local transit in that view of the future.
"We have a challenge, and I'm not going to say it's dead yet." (Oct. 23) - State Rep. Jim Kreuser was realistic about the state budget compromise in remarks to his hometown newspaper, Kenosha News, and staunch in continuing his efforts to overcome the rejectors of Southeast Wisconsin RTA and its first project, KRM commuter trains. Rep. Kreuser sought yesterday to insert a single RTA/KRM item into the compromise, and it failed 4-4 along the same partisan split which prevented inclusion of it five months ago, during initial budget deliberations by the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance. The joint committee's sixteen members split, 8-8, as did the two Racine members on it, Sen. John Lehman in favor and Rep. Robin Vos opposed.
Mayor Gary Becker, Racine, assured the Journal Times of his dedication to advancing the RTA and KRM funding needed to validate an application for federal matching funds now pending at the Federal Transit Administration. Rep. Vos also seemed to lament the inability to find a way to fund the RTA and its first project application to FTA, telling the Journal Times: "Now it seems that not being willing to compromise means it will not go forward, which is too bad."
Milwaukee has its own bundle of worries, which include local transit provided by Milwaukee County Transit System buses. Its daily newspaper reported Tuesday morning that transit aid from the state may partially improve the glum lack of aid increase to its county general fund, while headlining its discovery that the budget compromise is laden with "pork projects," double-pumping its worry under a bold "Budget full of surprises." In a less emphatic, but similar vein, Kenosha News informed readers that partisans blocking RTA/KRM due to suspicions that a tax increase might lurk somewhere also worry the budget compromise should bow more deeply to their tax concerns. Four of them contacted by the News intend to vote against adoption of it later Tuesday, as Rep. Kerkman voiced a typical view: "I'm looking to help people stay in Wisconsin, jobs stay in Kenosha, by keeping their taxes down."
The car rental fee sought by RTA to match federal funding was endorsed by leading corporate CEOs in all three counties, affecting mostly out-of-state renters of cars and few Wisconsin residents.
Train travel stands tall despite KRM hiatus (Oct. 31) - Senators pushed a Go Forward bill toward their House of Representtative counterparts with a 70-22 vote for S-294 which reauthorizes Amtrak funding and assures greater investment in infrastructure needed for safe, reliable train travel. Titled the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act, S-294 expands potential for federal-state funding co-operation and additional inter-city routes with support by Senator Kohl and Senator Feingold.
A railroad safety bill, HR-2095, passed by an overhwleming House vote, including all House members from Wisconsin except Rep. Sensenbrenner, in mid-October did not address train travel funding. It did achieve much needed commitment to related railroad issues
Racine County Executive William McReynolds wrote in Racine Journal Times that Mark Twain's pithy rejoinder deserved adaptation to a headline reporting Legislature failure to authorize a fee increase sought by the three-county RTA: "The report of KRMs demise is greatly exaggerated," Mr. McReynolds declared as preface to pointing out it can yet come before legislators separately or in another transit funding context. Mister McReynolds spoke warmly in support of train travel at dedication of the Sturtevant staton in August, 2006.
Neighboring Kenosha county supervisors prepared to mince no words nor delay in acting to reiterate support for KRM, according to Kenosha News.
Statewide transit funding proposal could solve KRM standoff (Nov 28) - Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter trains and improved bus service for them started as a three-county transit plan, was thoroughly planned and devised by Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, then designated as the first project for the SE Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority when the Legislature created it in 2005. Now, after the current Legislature blocked funding in the manner sought by SEW RTA, the widening difficulty for funding transit elsewhere in the state has moved the funding issue to actionable importance in Madison. Racine Journal Times reports on Nov. 26 that Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, a pivotal independnet voice for municipalities, has devised a sales tax proposal for its tentative enabling legislation which would readily attain the modest revenue needed for KRM and Racine bus service. The proposal, according to Journal Times would enable any two or more cities to form an RTA with taxing powers, and thereby shift transit funding to the tax used most commonly elsewhere shifting the expense from property tax to a sales tax not exceeding 35-cents ($0.35) per one hundred dollars ($100) in retail sales.
The Alliance of Cities proposal has yet to become a formal bill, but leads among possible ways for relieving the property tax burden, a popular concern among voters and municipal officials statewide.
National passenger train upgrades in limelight (Dec.7) - A fresh effort to improve train travel throughout the United States emerged yesterday with release of a proposal from the Passenger Rail Working Group calling for an average of $8.1 billion annually for the next 40 years to fund passenger train expansion and upgrades.
The press release issued to publicize the proposal quotes Sec. Frank Busalacchi:: "I formed the Passenger Rail Working Group to advise the commission in response to a wide range of public testimony calling for a strong national intercity passenger rail system." Mr. Busalacchi is a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. Mr. Busalacchi also serves as Secretary of Transportatin for the state of Wisconsin; has funded to completion the Sturtevant, Gen. Mitchell Int'l Airport, and downtown Milwaukee stations for Amtrak Hiawathas; and spoke favorably in support of KRM commuter trains prior to enactment of the Regional Transit Authoruty law passed in 2005 by legislators.
The working group forsees inexorbale increase in transit needs for senior citizens, for congestion mitigation especially in metro commuting environs, and for relief from ever more costly gasoline prices. A more complete listing of motives for greatly expanded train service appears at the commission's web site.
The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is a bipartisan organization formed last year by presidential and congressional appointment of its 12 members, with a mandate to examine national surface transportation needs and funding mechanisms for those needs.
Hiawathas higher and higher (Dec. 8) - An annual September dip in riders aboard Amtrak Hiawatha trains went a bit deeper than usual, but October passenger count rebounded. At Sturtevant it rose to a new peak for one month, above six thousand alightings and boardings, further showing how crucial additional parking has been to use of Hiawathas there.
Across the full 86-mile corridor, passenger count rose 10.5 percent year-to-year for the month of October, reaching 57,185 and another monthly record. WisDOT advises 34 of the past 36 months have attained record ridership counts, with calendar year 2007 within a whisker of one-half million as of October 31. Prospects are good for a total in 2007 of more than 600,000 Hiawatha riders ttraversing the route aboard Amtrak trains. sparing the highways that much congestion, especially I-94 and I-294.
At the north endpoint, Milwaukee's downtown station is now fully useful after completion of the remodeling and renovation begun in 2005. A WisDOT page indexes into monthly photo progress of the project, and passenger count there will surely rise to the occasion as regional and northern Wisconsin bus routes connect to and from Amtrak in Milwaukee.
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