Saturday, June 7, 2008

Exporting Urban Tax Base

Wow. Milwaukee Wisconsin is in an abusive marriage. They are a member of a regional planning agency that has 7 counties, of which three people from each county are representatives. There are no representatives from the city itself which provides 1/3 of the agencies operating budget. This agency, the SEWRPC, is in charge of land use and transportation planning for the counties.

The City of Milwaukee has 100,000 more residents than the combined populations of a majority of SEWRPC counties - Kenosha, Walworth, Washington and Ozaukee - but has zero seats on the commission.

Yet Milwaukee County pays the largest share of SEWRPC's operating budget that is collected from the seven counties' annual property tax levies - more than 33%, or $834,000 of $2,370,000 for 2007, records show.

Funny then how this happens...

Little wonder, then, that a major SEWRPC activity in this decade has been the creation of a $6.5 billion regional transportation plan that does not contain a single penny for any transit upgrade or initiative.

The plan is about to launch, over the City of Milwaukee's formal objection, a $1.9 billion, eight-year project segment including a new fourth I-94 lane from Milwaukee to Illinois. The plan deliberately omits a commuter rail plan that is available for the same corridor.

Even though gasoline has broken the $4-per-gallon barrier and demand for transit is up, neither the state nor SEWRPC will revisit the plan, its assumptions, spending and goals. That's not planning. That's denial.

So this is what happens when you give suburban jurisdictions control of the transportation funding that is regional in nature. No wonder they can't get the KRM line built or a reasonable transit network. They are always getting bad planning advice and have no funding clout.


295bus said...

I get the feeling sometimes things might work better if transportation funding were more local.

Counties are an arbitrary unit, but just suppose we made them self-sufficient: that is, every county figures out it's own transportation plan, and figures out for itself how to pay for it--no cycling $$ through the federal or state government, no "regional planning boards" to divvy up cash; basically, if a county wants anything built, whether it's roads or transit, tax yourself and pay for it.

Places smart enough to invest in transit would benefit, places that want to keep flushing cash down the freeway widening toilet would be free to do so.

The quality of both types of projects would benefit too (not all transit projects are good, not all road projects are bad!)--people are just a lot more careful when they're spending their own money!

arcady said...

The problem with planning strictly on the county level is that you get each county having an independent transit system, and little connectivity between them. Kind of like the Bay Area, actually.

295bus said...

We kind of get the worst of both scenarios in the Bay Area--we have a regional board, the MTC, that divvies up cash politically, but doesn't have the teeth or guts to make all our different agencies work together.

So here in San Mateo County, the biggest transit investment "we" have gotten lately, or are likely to get for a long time, is the BART extension to SFO--which doesn't actually do us much good at all, it's just to get people in SF and the East Bay to an airport that happens to be in our county. But to add insult to injury, if I ride CalTrain to connect with BART to go to the airport, I don't even get a free transfer--I got buy an extra ticket for the privilege of riding two miles from the "intermodal station" to the airport.

Dave said...

Oh yea it is a mess here in Milwaukee with such a suburban focus. No rail component but Billions (the $1.9 I94 project is just one example) and Billions for new and improved freeways.

It's a shame. Milwaukee, WI is actually a great city but this suburban rift holds in back from really moving forward.

295bus said...

So what would happen if Milwaukee County just up and withdrew from the regional board?

The Feds demand a regional authority for regional transportation projects--and you really can't have an authority like that if you don't include the urban core.

So if Milwaukee really feels they're getting totally shafted, they can at least use the threat of messing up the gravy train for the suburbs as leverage.