Groups fight to get public transit in next budget

“All aboard” is the call from a coalition of state and local groups seeking to unite public transit riders in a campaign for a 21st-century transportation system in Wisconsin.

Throughout September and into the fall, 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter, WisPIRG and others are holding public forums under the “Transit Equity Summit” banner.

They are collecting transit riders’ stories, discussing issues and encouraging people to get involved in the development of Wisconsin’s 2017–18 transportation budget.

The goal is for lawmakers to hear about the intersection of jobs and transit and how road construction and the environment reach a crossroads — all before the Legislature gets too deep into the budget process.

Misplaced priorities

Gov. Scott Walker’s administration prioritizes expanding the highway system when the focus should be on improving public transit, promoting alternative modes of transportation and repairing existing infrastructure, say Transit Equity Summit representatives. Although his 2017–18 transportation budget plan nods at local needs, most of its $6.5 billion is for highways.

For years, state transportation decisions have benefitted the industry that builds highways and not local communities, said Peter Skopec, director of WisPIRG. Money for transit service has been cut while big bucks go to highway projects.

Plus, according to WisPIRG and other groups, the state is prioritizing highway expansion despite trends showing many people, especially younger people, are relying more on transit, walking, and bicycling — all while doing less driving.

Consider that the average Wisconsinite drove 500 fewer miles in 2010 than in 2004. Also, nationwide between 2001 and 2009, reliance on public transportation increased 40 percent among young people.

Yet, said Skopec, “there’s more and more evidence that the transit system is not serving many people in Wisconsin. The system has been set up for people who drive. … And local priorities aren’t being met.”

“We’re using the word ‘equity,’” said Ashwat Narayanan of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, who observed there are many communities in the state that don’t have public transportation systems and others with inadequate systems. “People who are most affected by this are from low-income communities, the elderly and people who may be disabled. What we are trying to do through these forums is bring together people left out of the system.”

Local needs highlighted

Each forum is unique to its community and involves local groups and volunteers, according to Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator with the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter.

For instance, in Madison there may be discussion on the proposed widening of the Madison Beltline, which could cost billions.

In Milwaukee, there may be discussion on proposed expansions of highways and interchange projects versus the need to grow transit options and fix existing roads and bridges.

In most forums, there likely will be discussion on how increased transit ridership can reduce traffic congestion, promote job growth, spur economic development and improve accessibility to recreation, education and health care.

The environment also is likely to come up, Ward said. New data show the transportation sector produced more carbon pollution than any other sector of the economy over the past 12 months, including the electric power, industrial, residential and commercial sectors. The results mark the first time carbon emissions from transportation exceeded emissions from each of the other sectors since 1979.

Organizers hope to see 30–50 people at each forum.

“The conversations on this are starting already,” Skopec said of the next transportation budget. And transit riders need to be heard.

On the Web

For more information about the Transit Equity Summit and forums, go online to www.1kfriends.org, www.sierraclub.org/wisconsin and wispirg.org.