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Regional Transit Vote Opposed CapTimes 12-20-07

The Capital Times

LOCAL

Regional transit vote opposed

Spring referendum said to be effort to sink commuter rail

Mary Yeater Rathbun  —  12/20/2007 11:59 am

Holding a referendum this spring on whether to create a regional transit authority met with resounding opposition from Transport 2020's Implementation Task Force.

Some of the panel's members, as well as public speakers, said at a meeting Wednesday that they view the referendum as an effort to sink commuter rail.

The advisory group's vote goes against a proposal put forward by a group of Dane County Board supervisors who have been opponents of building a commuter rail line through Madison from Middleton to Sun Prairie.

The County Board will have the final say over whether the public will vote this spring on establishing a regional transit authority, or RTA. The RTA is intended to fund commuter rail, road maintenance and other transportation projects. The taxing authority proposed for the RTA, though, is so far uncertain in its details and would require approval from the state Legislature.

The proposal to hold a referendum is sponsored by County Board member Jack Martz and co-sponsored by supervisors David Wiganowsky, Mike Willett, Duane Gau, Gerald Jensen and Vern Wendt.

Critics of the proposal say that the referendum assumes that the taxing authority of the RTA is already established, doubling the Dane County sales tax to 1 percent.

"The intent (of the referendum) is to torpedo the rail system," said County Board Supervisor Al Matano, a member of the implementation task force.

Similarly, Scott McDonell, who is chairman of both the implementation task force and the County Board, argued that knowing exactly what legislation would allow an RTA to do was essential before the question was brought before the voters. McDonell said a final proposal passed by the state Legislature might not allow an RTA to increase taxes that much. It might allow the RTA taxing district to be either larger or smaller than the county. All the assumptions in the proposed referendum may turn out to be false, he said.

McDonell also said he could not support commuter rail unless at least half the money came from the federal government. "And we have no idea if we will get federal money or how much," he said, urging the committee to go ahead with its application for a federal grant.

But Bob Schaefer, another public speaker at the meeting, said he wanted a vote now before spending all the money on engineering studies and other expenses necessary to submit a complete grant application.

Task force member and UW-Madison sociology Professor John DeLamater argued that the referendum question was worded too narrowly.

"It is the wrong question at the wrong time," task force member Dick Wagner said, in seconding DeLamater's comment.

Fred Bartol of the newly renamed Dane Alliance for Rational Transit noted during the public comment section of the meeting, "There is obviously a very intense debate shaping up" and urged the task force to continue meeting as a public forum on the issue.

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