Transit in Transition

Story Date: 
Mar 31, 2015

This response was written by Karyn Rotker, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin, for the story, "Transportation advocates offer differing perspectives on urban transit issues" which appeared in the Neighborhood News Service.

1.)  How should transportation planning and projects be prioritized to meet the needs of central city residents (i.e., the reconstruction of I-94 west, the streetcar and the bus service)?
All transportation planning needs to consider the needs of communities of color, and ensure that those communities get a fair share of the benefits of transportation system investments and do not experience disproportionate burdens. See, e.g., Federal Highway Admin.  Guidance on Environmental Justice and NEPA,  ("Compare the impacts on the minority and/or low-income populations with respect to the impacts on the overall population within the project area. Fair distribution of the beneficial and adverse effects of the proposed action is the desired outcome"). The I-94 E/W expansion, as proposed, fails this test: it does not provide communities of color with a fair share of transportation system investments and it imposes disproportionate burdens on them - by not providing transit, by facilitating (segregated) suburban sprawl, by loss of business, jobs and neighborhood damage, and by adverse health and air quality effects. As SEWRPC noted in its 2006 long range plan, it was necessary for transit to increase at the same rate as highway construction/reconstruction, in particular to benefit communities of color and low income communities. That has not occurred, and it needs to.

2.)  Budget cuts have resulted in service cutbacks and fewer riders on city buses. Now options like signal priority and bus-rapid-transit are available to improve bus scheduling. Do you favor a more robust bus system with new routes and ?  If so, how should it be funded?
We believe that all options to create a more robust transit system - including more robust bus service - should be considered. We also believe that one funding source that should be considered for such capital investments is the federal Surface Transportation Program (STP). This is the federal program that funds much of the highway construction/rebuilding, but under federal law these funds also could be used ("flexed") to support transit capital investments. ("Eligible activities .  . . .Construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, resurfacing, restoration, preservation, or operational improvements for highways . . . .Capital costs for transit projects eligible for assistance under chapter 53 of title 49 [that would include Milw Co Transit] . . . .Highway and transit safety infrastructure improvements and programs. . . .Highway and transit research, development, technology transfer.. . . .")

There is also a need for increased state funding, as well as for the state to allow a local/regional funding source for transit operating expenses. Milwaukee is one of the only large metropolitan areas that is forced to use property taxes to support transit, with no specialized funding mechanism. We are not taking a position on precisely which mechanism is used for state/local funding, but such a mechanism needs to be created.

3.)  Wisconsin legislators have been known to characterize public transportation as "social service" and prioritize planning and funding accordingly.  Other states treat transportation as an economic development tool.  Which is it?  Please explain your view.
Transit is a form of transportation and needs to be given the same priorities and support as other forms of transportation - such as highway construction. If capital investments are properly implemented (e.g., bus rapid transit) it can be an economic development tool as well, and it is critical that communities of color benefit from such investments (both in the short term - e.g., by getting jobs and contracts on the construction - and in the long term, through neighborhood improvments).  It is also, of course, a critical method to connect workers and job seekers with jobs, to get students to school, to get residents to health care and recreation, etc.

 4.)  Do you favor the streetcar project as it currently stands ... Yes, No?  Why?
We have not taken a formal position on the streetcar project. However, we believe that there is a need to develop a method to provide jobs in construction of this project to central city workers.

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