Goyke says Walker's budget recommendation to fund public transit through the general fund was the "governor's decision alone."
Transportation advocates are concerned that one sentence buried in Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-15 budget will spell trouble for public transit systems across the state.
The governor is recommending that, starting in mid-2014, funding for public transit come out of the general fund rather than the transportation fund. Gary Goyke, legislative director for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association, says the shift will put public transit in "competition with all other needs in the general fund" and likely mean a loss of funding for urban transit systems.
Walker's budget also fails to reinstate a 10% cut the governor made to public transit in his 2011-13 budget. That cut cost Madison Metro Transit $1.4 million, says Chuck Kamp, general manager. Taxpayers and riders, through a fare increase, made up the difference.
The Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy, a group convened by Walker, recommended that the state restore transit funding to previous levels.
Without the restoration of funding, says Goyke, transit services throughout the state "will need to consolidate, close routes, or raise fares to maintain current service."
Kamp adds that it will prevent Madison Metro "from making the investments our riders are telling us to make." The transit agency is currently looking at ways to decrease travel time from one side of the city to the other through such means as Bus Rapid Transit, a limited-stop service.
The general fund contains revenue raised mainly through taxes. The transportation fund (PDF) is made up of the gas tax, vehicle registration fees, among other revenue streams.
Kamp says it's not appropriate to put public transportation funding in direct competition with funding for such things as the prison system and schools.
Kamp would like to see a "healthy mix" of funding for roads, bridges and transit in the transportation fund. Public transportation makes use of roads and bridges "more effectively and efficiently" than do cars and trucks, he adds.
As baby boomers age and younger people opt for a more economic ride, advocates say it's especially important to support public transportation.
Kamp says Madison Metro had 14.6 million rides last year, with ridership generally increasing in recent years. Metro's new route from downtown Madison to the Epic Systems campus in Verona has been so popular it is expanding the service. Kamp says that more than half of Madison Metro riders use the service to get to work.
Goyke says Walker's budget recommendation to fund public transit through the general fund was the "governor's decision alone," without much support from outside groups or legislators. Public transit monies have come from the transportation fund for decades, Goyke adds.
When Walker made the same recommendation in 2011, Democrats and Republicans supported its removal. Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, and Veterans and Military Affairs, said through a spokesman that he did not have strong feelings either way about the proposed change. "We are aware that some transit advocates are concerned about the transfer making it more difficult for them to secure funding in the future. The reality is the transportation fund has a projected $6 billion shortfall over the next 10 years, so it's not clear they're any better or worse off either way," says Tim Fiocchi.
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), says the proposed shift in funding source and Walker's budget in general will "reward road builders... giving them everything [they] want and then some."
Governor Walker's office did not return repeated requests for comment.
Risser is also opposed to a constitutional amendment, which was just approved by the Assembly and Senate, that would prohibit the use of transportation fund monies for non-transportation expenses. The amendment also passed the Legislature last session so it now goes to Walker for signing. Wisconsin voters must approve it in a statewide referendum, however, before it becomes law.
In light of Walker's budget proposal to fund public transit through the general fund, Goyke says the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association will revisit its support of the transportation fund constitutional amendment.
"It does alter our thinking on the value of that [constitutional] amendment," says Goyke, whose association will determine its new stance in April.
Voters will likely face the referendum in November.