SERTA: Transit News & Notes

South Milwaukee Alderman Takes a Stand on Regional Transit

Posted in Uncategorized by SERTA on January 25, 2010

South Milwaukee’s 4th district Alderman posted the following on his blog  following the widely attended press event at Bucyrus International:

Where I Stand on Regional Transit … and Rail

January 23, 2010

As I said in a previous post, I had the pleasure of attending last week’s press conference at Bucyrus International where Governor Jim Doyle joined business, labor and political leaders to announce the introduction of a bill to create a Southeastern Wisconsin regional transit authority.

I called it “a new day” in the longstanding debate over regional transit funding and the future of the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line.

It’s not hyperbole, and here’s why: It’s because of who was in the room.

Yes, Doyle’s support is no surprise. Nor is the support of organized labor, and they were certainly well represented and made their voices heard. Rather, iit was the presence of the business executives that sent the strongest message.

 Bucyrus. SC Johnson. Northwestern Mutual. Johnson Controls. AT&T.

One after another, the chief executives of all of these companies stepped to the microphone at the press conference and told those in attendance the exact same thing – that they support Doyle’s RTA proposal and the bus transit and KRM trains it will help fund.

Their reason? Economic development and jobs, jobs, jobs … using transit to get workers to their front doors. Indeed, Bucyrus CEO Tim Sullivan pointed out that a KRM station would likely be located within a half block of its main entrance.

As Sullivan and the others spoke, I couldn’t help but think that this gathering marked a tipping point in this often too-contentious debate, one in which ridicule and scorn has too often replaced reasoned and rational discourse.

No longer can conservatives claim that support for KRM and regional transit is purely a liberal issue. No longer can they deride supporters as lefty “choo-choo train” lovers.  

No, this is now a big business issue, a conservative cause, a liberal cause, a bipartisan cause. The presence of those corporate leaders on Tuesday showed that more than anything.

That’s why I think you will indeed see the RTA bill pass and the KRM trains ultimately leave the station. And it’s why I’ll be the first to welcome the trains to South Milwaukee.

 Of course, there are global reasons for my support.

For starters, our area’s transit funding mechanism (one based on property taxes) is broken. Look no further than the “death by a thousand cuts” state our county bus system is in. We need a new way to pay for transit, and we need to join most other major metropolitan areas in making that a sales tax and RTA.

We also lag behind our peers in not having rail as part of our transit arsenal. Cities that we are competing with for jobs have rail as a drawing card. We don’t, and that hurts us.

I also strongly believe a regional approach to transit is a must if the Milwaukee area is to compete with other cities across the country. An RTA provides that.

Yet, while I believe all of these are valid arguments for an RTA and KRM, my support for both is not based on any of them. My strong support is based on the fact that an RTA will help bring the KRM to life, and the KRM is good for South Milwaukee.

Here’s why: 

  • Commuter rail is a boon for Bucyrus. Sullivan said it best when he said the KRM trains will be instrumental in attracting new talent to Bucyrus – a priority given the perhaps 500 new people the company will be bringing to South Milwaukee as a result of its acquisition of the mining division of Terex Corporation. The same argument could be made for Cooper Power, Metalcut, Appleton Electric and any other city employer. Getting workers from Point A (home) to Point B (work) and back again is perhaps the biggest argument for the KRM extension.
  • Commuter rail is a boon for our downtown. Sometimes forgotten in this debate is what the KRM could mean to our city center. Simply, a downtown station could spur a rebirth in this critically important district. Look at the numerous examples in northern Illinois – if done well and planned properly, commuter rail stations spur development. There is no argument here. Draw a six-block radius around your station, and new business and residential growth will follow there. That means a new day for a downtown that needs it.
  • Commuter rail will draw new residents to our city. So, you’ve just been hired at Abbott Labs, Baxter or some other major Lake County, Illinois, employer, but there’s no way your family can afford to live there. Nor do you event want a life in exurbia. Why not consider South Milwaukee? We’re a clean, safe, affordable community located 10 minutes from downtown Milwaukee … and maybe less than an hour from your job on the train. That’s what KRM will bring our city – new prospective homeowners and apartment renters, and demand for new housing near the station. What an opportunity.

Now, even with all those positives for South Milwaukee, I realize this is no slam dunk, and the RTA and KRM are not without their political pitfalls.

The KRM is costly – more than $200 million to get it up and running, according to the latest estimates – and it will require some sort of taxpayer subsidy going forward. Fares will not support it alone. And Doyle’s RTA plan is sure to be unpopular with some, as it calls for a 0.5% sales tax increase to pay for busses, trains and other transit options.

Yet while holding the line on taxes and spending should be a focus for any elected official, there are times when increasing both is justified as an investment in a worthy effort that promises a strong return. This is one of those times … and the KRM is one of those projects.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to Tim Sullivan, Fisk Johnson, Bob Mariano and Stephen Roell — the business leaders who spoke last Tuesday.

Let’s invest in South Milwaukee. Let’s get the trains rolling. It’s time.