Republicans of the Scott Walker breed have dissed the few moderates left in their increasingly wingnut party on any number of issues, but among the most breath-taking among these assaults in Wisconsin has been the party's increasing disdain for mass transit. Because, apparently, mass transit isn't necessary, it's wasteful, no one uses it, and -- perhaps most important == too many of the many people who do use it are, ah, you know, people of ... another persuasion.
This paradoxical reasoning led to massive and largely successful Wisconsin GOP efforts to kill extension of commuter rail service from Chicago via Kenosha northward to Milwaukee. It led to killing Wisconsin's regional mass transit authorities that were working on new ways to fund buses, rail and other systems. It led to Walker's refusal of nearly a billion federal dollars for high-speed, inter-city rail through the state, money now instead put to work in Illinois, which will not become a transporation backwater as a result.
The GOP's anti-transit fervor led to efforts by then-Milwaukee County Executive Walker and others to destroy a long-term plan to use federal transportation funds for a Milwaukee light-rail system -- making Milwaukee the very last major American city without such a system. It led to Walker and other Republicans current fight to destroy Milwaukee's plan to use federally targeted funds to construct an electric streetcar loop through its downtown, local control again be damned. It led to ... ah, but you get the picture.
Meanwhile, private highway builders who contributed massively to state GOP war chests are beaming anew now that Walker proposes to borrow nearly a billion dollars so we can build more highways. Meanwhile, besides throttling mass transit, Walker proposes to continue starving local street and road maintenance, because those roadways are in pretty good shape. Or so claims the Walker administration as it ignores the widening potholes you face everyday on your way to work or the store.Deteriorating local streets may come back to bite Walker and his legislative delegation at election time, which would be suitable karma, indeed, quite likely, though, Walker will shrug and blame mayors and local councils and not his own spending decisions.
The coda to this ridiculous, throw-back mentality came yesterday when Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb outlined the agency's proposed two-year budget to the legislature's Joint Finance Committee. While there are a few good ideas in the budget -- among them renovating Milwaukee's harbor bridge instead of dismantling it, and hiring a few more state highway engineers to save millions over using private consultants -- the message on mass transit was old news adorned with fresh ideological misdirection. From Gottlieb's prepared comments:
Metrics indicate that local road conditions remained fairly constant from 2007-2011 and that transit availability is declining. The Governor’s budget transitions transit assistance from SEG to GPR funding in FY2015. Funding transit operating assistance with GPR will allow for more transportation fund revenues to be spent on direct benefits to the highway system users who pay them, while also linking transit funding to a revenue source that may experience greater natural growth in the future.
Now that's putting political lipstick on a pig! In Gottlieb's wording (no doubt strongly informed by the governor's office), "transportation fund revenues" magically are transformed into "highway system" funds. People and businesses pay state taxes on gasoline and diesel and other fossil fuels and the revenue goes to the transporation budget. But while buses and trains run on the same fuels, mass transit evidently is not to be regarded as legitimate transportation expenditures because it doesn't involve private automobiles.
Walker might as well create an Office of Free Market Transportation and advise mass transit users to go buy a car if they need to get to the doctor's office, or to work. Subsidizing automobiles: Good. Subsidizing mass transit: Bad.
Yet, thanks in part to the Great Recession and cultural changes, people in Wisconsin are driving fewer road miles. As the Wisconsin Public Interest Resarch Group has noted, the state is struggling to pay for highway repairs and new miles partly because of this decline, which cuts into those state fuel tax revenues. But Walker and company refuse to address the revenue decline except by cutting spending elsewhere and borrowing more.
Thus, to pay for his plan to boost highway spending 32 percent, Gov. "We have a surplus!" Walker is not only seeking to take on nearly a billion dollars of new state debt, he also plans to grab nearly half a billion out of the non-transportation budget, plus sell state properties, including power plants. When Gov. Jim Doyle moved money around like this in his own budgets, albeit on a far smaller scale, Walker screamed foul. Now, he's Big Bird of a feather on the issue.
Federal Republicans treat military spending as sacrosanct; Wisconsin Republicans increasingly regard highway spending with the same reverence.
And it gets worse. Pulling mass transit funding assistance out of the Department of Transportation and putting it into a smaller General Fund? That means state aid to buses and other local public transit systems will now not simply have to compete against gargantuan highway interests, they will have to compete against even more ganguantuan non-transportation interests that receive fewer dollars from Walker in the first place. And since the GOP killed off the regional transit authorities, you can forget about locally designed funding solutions.
Meanwhile -- and this may even be too much for some Republican legislators to stomach -- DOT's managers and central staff will get a brand new $200 million state office building, if Walker has his way.
Summing up: Walker lays out far less money for mass transit, and then -- as he and his ilk did with the public schools they defunded -- surely will raise an eyebrow when mass transit services consequently become less efficient and effective. But never mind that the highway system itself has become less efficient and effective, Walker will throw billions more dollars at it, apparently self-referential proof that doubling down on highway construction is a wise investment.
With apologies to Joni Mitchell: They paved Wisconsin, and put up a parking lot.
Remember that this isn't all about the future. Many regional and local mass transit systems in Wisconsin are already hurting. Walker, as county executive, cut funds to the Milwaukee County Transit System forcing rate increases and service cuts, inevitably leading to reduced ridership. His long-running attitude toward mass transit is like conservative Grover Norquist's scheme to starve the federal government of revenue until it's "small enough to drown in a bathtub."
Walker and his bizmo pals meanwhile scratch their heads in public trying to figure out why out of work and lower income Wisconsin residents won't take various job openings, but then merrily continue to cut funding to one of the key systems that can get those residents to jobs in nearby towns or across county lines. Because, you see, not everyone can afford an automobile, or at least one that is year-round reliable. Especially when they're out of work. Even when the state massively subsidizes roads. Especially when many jobs pay less and less.
Nationally, mass transit use is on the rise. In many places it's still affordable, reliable and gets people where they need to go. It's environmentally sound, too. And where sensible policymakers are in office, funding for mass transit is on the rise. "Creative class" scholars insist that good mass transit helps attract talented young workers who hold it in high regard.
But not in Wisconsin. Because, you see, starving mass transit of funds has led to crummier mass transit service. And in the Walker mind-set, crummy mass transit is itself proof that we shouldn't waste our time funding mass transit. Because, who needs it? Not Scott Walker. And especially not the state's hog-happy road builders.