Public Policy Forum Blog

Transit referendum could have steep hill to climb

As you may have heard, the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities has recently crafted legislation that would allow, by referendum vote only, the creation of regional transit authorities with taxing powers. However, a recent article in the Daily Reporter announces that some transit advocates would rather it be left up to elected leaders in each region to implement taxing authority for transit.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel voices support for the referendum proposal in this morning's paper. In their editorial, they state:

"'s up to the business community to start pushing for referendums and to get behind a sales tax that can pay off big in economic development."

Naturally, strong business support would be needed to pass any sort of tax increase. Public sector support probably wouldn't hurt either. In fact, support and leadership would have to be garnered from many different constituencies if advocates expect eventual passage.

However, "needing support" is not a very intriguing point. It's a given.

A more compelling analysis is to weigh the actual chances for support in southeastern Wisconsin for funding a transit authority. So, what are the chances?

Based on what I've seen in other regions, referendum passage could pivot on the following three issues:

  • What transit referendum? Oh, you mean the "livability" referendum. The saying goes, "he who frames the issue determines the outcome of the debate." And, so it is with transit. Framing an improved transit system beyond just "moving people" - but, instead, connecting transit to land-use, economic development, quality of life and other livability issues.
  • Has the train already left the station? Many regions find that having a system component already in place makes it easier to gain voter approval. The reasoning is that voters generally abhor change and that envisioning a "system expansion" is much easier to swallow than voting for "a whole new system."
  • Is this your first time? Transit referendum typically don't pass the first time out of the gate. The reasoning is that it takes time to build coalitions and conduct adequate public engagement in the lead-up to the vote.

Based on these observations, southeastern Wisconsin could have an uphill climb in persuading the public to support passage of a regional transit authority with taxing powers.