Madison Metro bus, State Journal generic file photo

The City Council adopted a $40 vehicle registration fee in October as a way to bridge an $11 million budget gap and help fund investments in bus rapid transit. It would generate approximately $7.9 million in new revenue for the city.

An effort to eliminate Madison’s newly created $40 vehicle registration fee if a regional transit authority were created failed to receive approval at a committee meeting Dec. 2. 

The City Council reluctantly adopted the fee in October as a way to bridge an $11 million budget gap and help fund investments in bus rapid transit. It would generate approximately $7.9 million in new revenue for the city.

District 16 Ald. Mike Tierney, who voted against the vehicle registration fee, said the proposal signals to residents that the tax could end. 

“If we move forward with this, it sends a strong message that this is something we don’t want to keep in perpetuity and as soon as we are able to get rid of it, we will,” Tierney said.    

The ordinance would repeal the city’s vehicle registration fee if a Dane County regional transit authority that provided adequate replacing funding were established. The proposal also notes that the shift in funding sources would not jeopardize any grant or other revenue sources.

The Transportation Policy and Planning Board recommended that the City Council place the ordinance on file. Ald. Grant Foster, District 15, said it would not be a wise decision for the city to make a choice about a future unknown situation.  

“The only thing I can really see coming from this is people get a false hope that somehow we’re going to get an RTA, and this is going to go away,” Foster said, adding that he does not think the creation of an RTA is realistic. 

Local municipalities in Wisconsin are barred by the state from creating regional transportation authorities, which have the power to levy taxes as another source of funding for public transit. 

A 2011 law barring them dissolved RTAs in Dane County, the Chippewa Valley and Chequamegon Bay and also eliminated the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, which aimed to establish a commuter rail line connecting Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee. 

Deputy Mayor Leslie Orrantia questioned the viability of an RTA because it has become politicized. 

"Of course, we would welcome additional resources as possible, we just also recognize there’s some significant political limitations," Orrantia said.  

Orrantia, who oversees aspects of economic development, public health and transportation, said the city is not currently talking to state leaders about regional transit authority legislation. 

"Part of this is given the lean nature of the administration, we are just picking our battles and that is not a battle worth picking," Orrantia said. "That said, we’re trying to strengthen relationships with the state at large and identity different resources, both obviously for transportation specifically, but beyond that, to support our residents."  

In 2017, the city of Madison adopted a resolution that established goals for regional transit legislation. Transportation Director Tom Lynch said the city is always looking for fairer ways to distribute transportation costs and that cities other than Madison may be able to make progress with state legislation. 

“The most effective efforts for that will be led by municipalities around the state rather than from Madison,” Lynch said. 

Tierney said it is “worthwhile” to pursue the proposal and is optimistic about the future possibility of a regional transit authority. 

“Pressure is going to begin to build again because it’s just such a common sense idea,” Tierney said.

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