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Wauwatosa council opposes regional transportation proposal

March 4, 2009

The Wauwatosa Common Council last night took a stand against Gov. Jim Doyle's recommendations to create a permanent Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority, which would have the ability to levy up to a half-percent sales tax in Milwaukee County.

However, the decision was far from unanimous. On a vote of 8-6, the council passed a resolution that expresses its opposition to the regional transportation proposal.

Doyle's plan includes recommendations for leadership from Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties and the most populous municipalities within them; bonding authority to cover capital improvements; and oversight for transit service and operations and the sole recipient of federal transit aids in each municipality.

As far as the sales tax increase, the governor reasons it will spread costs beyond local residents because out-of-region visitors pay up to 30 percent of local sales tax.

Council members against the RTA proposal worry one charge will not cancel out the other.

"There's no guarantee this will come off of our property taxes," Alderwoman Jacqueline Jay said.

In addition, council members opposed to the RTA said they do not want to see an increase in sales tax, a charge they said could send local residents into Waukesha County to do their shopping and raise Wauwatosa residents' cost of living.

Alderman Thomas Herzog voiced concern about giving taxing authority to a body that would not have a Wauwatosa representative serving on it.

Those in support of the governor's recommendations said the organization would provide support for the local bus system that has fallen into financial hardship, ease congestion on busy roadways and promote regional cooperation on projects that could not be completed by one jurisdiction.

"There's a lack of regional cooperation here," said Alderman Dennis McBride, a frequent user of Milwaukee County Transit System.

Wauwatosa needs bus service or some type of alternative mass transit to provide disabled and senior populations and employees to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, he said. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's proposed engineering campus would also create a demand by students needing transportation.

RTA would also continue to analyze options for commuter rail that would connect southeastern Wisconsin with Chicago.

Public opinion on the topic of a transit authority seems as mixed as those of the officials that represent them.

As of the start of the meeting, city staff had counted 21 calls or e-mails against the RTA, 11 in favor and more coming in, Mayor Jill Didier said. Council members also reported getting calls from people living in and outside of Wauwatosa because the city counted as one of the first municipalities to take up the issue.

A few city officials said it is too early to take a position on the RTA, instead preferring the state and counties flesh out their plans more before any decisions are made locally. Others suggested holding a public hearing, leaving staff to do more research on the issue or continuing discussions at committee level.

"There is a lot to be done at a much higher level than Wauwatosa," Didier said. "I don't think it would be wise to use staff time on an issue we don't have ability to enact policy on."

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