RACINE COUNTY — If you want to get somewhere in eastern Racine County and don’t have a car or anyone to drive you, you have a couple choices other than walking or riding a bike.
You can call a cab or use a ridesharing service, but if you can’t afford those options, there is the city bus, or Ryde.
The service costs $2 per trip and serves Racine, Mount Pleasant, Caledonia and Sturtevant, as well as the Grandview Industrial Park just west of Interstate 94 in Yorkville. But as users and local leaders will attest, it is not always the most convenient way to get to work or elsewhere in the community.
Federal and state funding cuts, as well as local budget woes, have eroded service over the years, resulting in fewer routes and longer waits between buses. Now the Village of Sturtevant says it will cut its $50,000 annual contribution to Ryde, citing longstanding frustrations with the system.
As the region prepares for a Foxconn manufacturing campus expected to employ hundreds of construction workers in the short term and up to 13,000 employees in long term, The Journal Times asked area lawmakers and leaders how the region should address the looming transportation need, and if there might be the political will in Madison to allow for regional transit authorities.
While Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who was part of the effort to abolish RTAs in 2011, remains largely opposed to the idea, fellow Republicans, state Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine, and state Rep. Thomas Weatherston, of Caledonia, say they are open to discussing possible solutions, including RTAs.
Used in many states, RTAs have taxing authority or can ask voters to approve taxes — in many cases a sales tax — dedicated toward funding a regional transit network. Six years ago state lawmakers passed legislation essentially prohibiting RTAs. Transit advocates have long lobbied for the state to allow the systems, but those efforts have largely failed.
The idea of creating an RTA to address Foxconn transit needs was most recently brought up by Racine City Administrator Jim Palenick.
Ryde costs about $9.8 million annually to operate, and is funded through a variety of sources, including state and federal funding, fares and money from the City of Racine, Sturtevant, Mount Pleasant, Caledonia and Yorkville.
Under the current funding system, Sturtevant’s decision to defund Ryde could mean service being eliminated to Gateway Technical College’s iMet Center, 2320 Renaissance Blvd., in Sturtevant, which is preparing for a $5 million-plus expansion to train future Foxconn employees.
Asked about the situation, Weatherston said that he was “open to the idea” of RTAs.
“I would like to know more about what that really entails, but I am at least open to talking about it and learning more. With Foxconn coming it’s something we should talk about,” Weatherston said.
Wanggaard said he would be willing to discuss RTAs, but stressed transit discussions should begin with local municipalities.
“I think (an RTA) is definitely going to be part of the discussion, that being said, the first part of the discussion has to be about the expectation of each one the communities,” he said.
Asked for the county’s position, M.T. Boyle, Racine County’s chief of staff, said county officials realize that transportation can be a barrier to employment.
“That concern has been discussed extensively in our Workforce Solutions effort in light of not just Foxconn, but as an ongoing issue,” Boyle wrote in an email. “Until state legislators change the law prohibiting RTAs, the county will continue to work with the tools and resources we have.”
Sturtevant Village President Jayme Hoffman, whose village board has been suddenly thrust into the middle of the Foxconn transit debate, said he’d like to see service issues addressed before discussing RTAs.
Racine’s mayor-elect, state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts; nor could Mount Pleasant Village President Dave DeGroot. The massive Foxconn manufacturing campus is slated to be located in southwest Mount Pleasant.
Recent efforts, obstacles
As lawmakers and local leaders contemplate available solutions to transit needs, state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Democrats in the both houses of the state Legislature continue to push for RTAs.
A budget amendment that would have allowed regions across the state to create the systems failed along party lines this year, as did an effort to pass an amendment to the Foxconn legislation that would have allowed Milwaukee, Waukesha, Kenosha, or Racine counties to form RTAs. Legislators in the Fox Valley and Chippewa valley areas have unsuccessfully pursued similar efforts.
Vos, who leads the Republican majority in the Assembly, hasn’t changed his position on RTAs.
“From my perspective, I look and say the City of Racine, Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant, Caledonia can already form an entity that allows for them to coordinate and cooperate on transportation if they choose,” Vos said. “I think what they are looking for is more money from taxpayers.”
He added that he hasn’t heard from area constituents or business leaders who say they would like the ability to tax for such service.
“I guess before I’m convinced we would need revenues to expand service, I want to make sure that the service we are providing is as efficient as it can be, and it is going to where jobs actually are,” he said.
When asked for Gov. Scott Walker’s position on regional transit authorities, a Department of Administration spokesman did not directly address the issue, but instead pointed to the roughly $250 million in funding for Interstate 94 included in the Foxconn legislation.
Asked again about public transit, DOA Communications Director Steve Michels said: “The state will work with local employers, municipalities, and partners to make sure the skilled workforce needed in the region is available.”
Despite the lack of support from Republicans, Barca, whose district includes a portion of southeastern Racine County, said he believes that those in power increasingly recognize that transportation needs to be a part of the Foxconn initiative.
He plans to continue introducing legislation to allow RTAs, and working to build support.
“The problem is there is no easy solution,” Barca said. “Not that an RTA is easy, but it is one proven solution that has worked in other states very effectively.”