On Nov. 2, voters in at least 42 Dane County municipalities will weigh in on whether they support a half-cent sales tax to pay for commuter rail.
But the results of the advisory referendum aren’t likely to make any difference.
While some residents see the vote as a chance for the public to be heard on local commuter rail, others dismiss it as disingenuous politics,
"The powers that be don’t understand how the public feel about it outside the city of Madison in terms of wanting to have a vote on the issue," said Sup. Bill Clausius, of Sun Prairie, who unsuccessfully asked the County Board to hold a countywide referendum.
Clausius said he plans to vote "no" on the proposal, which he said will inform the Regional Transit Authority Board to reconsider including commuter rail in their transit plans.
But RTA Board Chairman Dick Wagner emphasized that the vote in November is not the official vote promised by the RTA and that the results won’t instruct the process going forward.
"I’m not really sure what I would tell (voters to do) because it’s so confusing," Wagner said. "It’s best if they wait for a real transit plan."
The 42 municipalities that have already voted to put the advisory referendum on the official ballot — along with two that are considering an unofficial poll — represent nearly 40 percent of the county’s population and more than 75 percent of the population outside Madison. The city of Madison, along with Fitchburg and a dozen towns and villages, do not plan to hold the referendum. The Monona City Council and town of Madison board are scheduled to vote on the issue Monday.
Most voters in communities with the referendum on the November ballot will see a question asking whether they support a half-cent sales tax to fund commuter rail from Middleton to the town of Burke, which is just west of Sun Prairie.
The question is based on a $250 million commuter rail proposal for which county leaders sought federal funds in 2008, but withdrew because they lacked a local funding source.
The state Legislature has since authorized and the County Board has since approved creation of the RTA with the ability to raise up to a half-cent sales tax for bus, rail and other transit modes, though not roads.
The RTA Board has committed to holding a referendum before raising a sales tax, but not until after fleshing out a transit plan with detailed cost estimates. The cost for commuter rail likely will change because the Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger rail project is in the process of upgrading tracks that were part of the local commuter rail cost estimate.
Though a majority of communities agreed to hold a referendum, many struggled with the arguments for and against putting it on the ballot.
Mount Horeb decided not to hold the referendum because County Clerk Bob Ohlsen plans to charge $300 per polling place plus a per-ballot fee, administrator Larry Bierke said. To avoid that cost, the town of Vienna plans to issue voters a slip of paper asking the question, though the results will not be tracked by the clerk’s office. The town of Berry, which is outside the RTA area, passed a resolution saying it will hold a referendum when the RTA holds a referendum, town chairman Tony Varda said.
DeForest plans to ask two questions, one about commuter rail and one about whether voters support a half-cent sales tax for a transit plan. Village President Jeff Miller said he abstained on the vote.
"It’s not that I endorse or support the train, it’s just that it wasn’t being asked at the appropriate time," Miller said.