Fox Cities leaders continue fight for regional transit authority

People board a Valley Transit bus in Appleton on Wed, Feb. 12, 2014. (WLUK/Andrew LaCombe)
People board a Valley Transit bus in Appleton on Wed, Feb. 12, 2014. (WLUK/Andrew LaCombe)

APPLETON - It still may be a bumpy road ahead for public transportation in the Fox Cities.

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow voters to decide if they want to pay more taxes to pay for transit, but the plan may get nowhere in the Assembly.

John Loonsfoot of Appleton doesn't have a car, so he rides a Valley Transit bus five days a week.

"I use it to find work, go into employment, all over the city here," said Loonsfoot.

Valley Transit serves nine communities, with more than 1.2 million riders a year.

It could lose $1.5 million in annual federal funding at the end of next year. That's about 30 percent of the bus service's budget.

Valley Transit wants to offset the possible loss.

Transit and community leaders have been working with local legislators on a bill that allow for the creation of a regional transit authority, or an RTA. It would be funded through a regional sales tax of up to 0.5%.

The bill wouldn't automatically create the RTA or raise taxes. Voters would make that decision in a referendum.

"This bill would put the decision in the people's hands, to decide to go to vote and decide whether or not they want to tax themselves for transit," said Nikki Voelzke, a community relations specialist for Valley Transit.

The bill was passed Tuesday by the state Senate, but that likely won't happen in the Assembly. The chair of the Assembly's Transportation Committee is still considering holding a public hearing on the legislation.

However, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who controls the floor schedule, says the bill won't get to the Assembly floor. Vos opposes RTAs.

"I do not want to create a patchwork around the state where individual communities raise sales taxes to put into transit," said Vos. "That's just a band-aid approach to fix what really is a broken transportation system."

Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna disagrees, saying RTAs would be a solid way to improve transportation funding issues.

"Give us some tools," said Hanna. "Give us a tool so if our own citizens choose, we have some tools that we can use. I think this is a win-win for locals and the state."

Hanna has been working on establishing an RTA for almost ten years.

He's glad the Senate approved the bill and now hopes to speak with Vos about getting his support for an idea that could improve the future of the service riders like Loonsfoot rely on.

"It's pretty important," said Loonsfoot.

Voelzke and Hanna both say if the Assembly doesn't get on board with the bill this session, they'll push to get it re-introduced next year.

Valley Transit says if it loses federal funds and the RTA isn't established, bus service could be reduced and fares may go up.