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January 22, 2016

A Moral Imperative to Fix an Unfair Transportation Bill

Affordable, reliable bus service is critical for many Wisconsinites, particularly low income workers and people who are elderly or have disabilities. Unfortunately, bus systems and other public transportation services have long been underfunded in Wisconsin, and a transportation funding bill the legislature is considering will compound that problem.

The bill in question (AB 210) would allow each county (via a local referendum) to raise the sales tax, in order to raise funds for road repairs and construction. But even though the sales tax falls more heavily on low income Wisconsinites, because it’s a higher percentage of their income, the bill wouldn’t allow any of the new revenue to be used for public transportation (“transit”) purposes! 

I wrote a Wisconsin Budget Project blog post about that bill on Martin Luther King Day because bus service was such an important part of the civil rights movement, and because public transportation is still a very important social justice issue. In the words of the Leadership Conference:

“Transportation equity is a civil and human rights priority. Access to affordable and reliable transportation widens opportunity and is essential to addressing poverty, unemployment, and other equal opportunity goals such as access to good schools and health care services. However, current transportation spending programs do not equally benefit all communities and populations. …Providing equal access to transportation means providing all individuals living in the United States with an equal opportunity to succeed.”

A recent action alert from WISDOM, which is a faith-based group that works on social justice issues, does an excellent job of explaining why AB 210 should be amended or defeated:

“Transit funding was cut by 10% in the 2012-14 state budget, which resulted in the end of some bus routes, shorter service hours and in some communities, a complete loss of transit service. The problem was made even greater when the state reduced shared revenue to local communities, leaving them with less capacity to support their local systems.

“When transit is underfunded, it is the most vulnerable part of our population that suffers the most. Many people who are elderly, who have disabilities, work for low wages, or cannot drive depend on public transit to get to work, to go to the doctor, to go to Church or school, or just to participate in the life of the community.”

As I explained in the Budget Project blog post, I would rather see new transportation funding raised from a user fee, such as increasing the gas tax. But if the legislature is intent upon going the route of authorizing local sales tax increases, the allowable purposes for the new revenue should be broadened. Quoting again from the WISDOM alert:

“If AB 210 moves forward, it MUST include an option for counties to fund transit systems. If it does not, it should not be passed at all. It would be grossly unfair to ask all people to pay a transportation tax, then refuse to let any of the money go toward the needs of the part of the community that doesn’t drive.”

Jon Peacock