Citizens Alliance for Regional Transit Authorities in WI

People’s Alliance for Regional Transit Authorities
Getting Wisconsin Back on Track Towards Sustainability
Narrative, Rationale, and Organizing Proposal.

Bob Gifford
Portage County Board of Supervisors member (nonpartisan seat)
Wisconsin Green Party initiative approved in Coordinating Council July 17 2016.

First Belgian train operate on solar energy

epa02768994 Solar panels pictured during the presentation of the first Belgian train which operates on solar energy, in Antwerp Central Station, Belgium, 06 June 2011. A tunnel was built with 16,000 solar cells on the roof of the tunnel. The high speed rail runs from Antwerp to Amsterdam. EPA/DIRK WAEM BELGIUM OUT

At the May, 2016 meeting of our Portage County Transportation Coordinating Committee, among the correspondence packet was a short piece from Wisconsin Association of Mobility Managers (WAMM), identifying a key State Legislature priority: Regional Transit Authority Enabling Legislation. I recalled reading about how the Governor’s Act 32 Budget Bill had stripped away the ability of Counties and Municipalities to form Regional Transit Authorities. I remember thinking at the time, what a blow to efforts to make Wisconsin more sustainable, this backwards, regressive item in a budget bill was.

So it was with great interest that I read the short narrative from WAMM explaining why Regional Transit Authority Enabling Legislation was crucial to their mission. In many Counties of Wisconsin, there are Mobility Managers charged with helping the elderly, disabled persons, very low-income people, and those with needs that can’t be met by personal autos, to move about their Counties (or multi-county areas). So, for these Managers, Regional Mass Transit is the next logical step. See Footnote [1].

There are two ways that Regional Transit Authorities would move Wisconsin toward sustainability. The first is the reduction in use of fossil fuels to move people around. Having 25 people on a bus between Wausau and Stevens Point saves the fuel that 20+ vehicles would have used. While the US oil and gas markets are presently glutted with fuel from fracked oil and gas fields, the fracking boom is going to have a very short lifespan, and a number of experts believe this boom will be mostly into its “bust” phase by around 2025 A/D.–not a very large window of opportunity to allow for massive switches from fossil fuels to the alternative renewable energies. [2]

The second aspect of sustainability which RTAs address is a non-obvious one for people who haven’t studied The Natural Step framework for sustainability. That is, the human element. In The Natural Step, there are four system conditions listed as needed to assure sustainability. The fourth element is phrased,
“In that (sustainable) society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.” [3]

However, in cities and counties of all sizes and population densities in Wisconsin, working-poor people are subject to one of several conditions that systematically undermines their capacity to meet their needs. That condition is lack of mobility, specifically lack of affordable mass transit for persons who cannot afford the personal automobile to get to a job so that they can support their household.

For example, a friend in Stevens Point, recently has graduated UW-SP with a professional degree, and has a solid job offer from an organization in Wausau. However, having run out of the funds that sustained her during 4 years in University, she is dead broke, with a car that has “thousand-dollar issues”. Likewise, she lacks the three months’ rent in savings accounts, to be able to swing the $2,250 she would need to get an apartment in Wausau all on her own. Sizing-up her situation, she declines the offer. That’s because she’s living in an unsustainable society, that of Central Wisconsin.

Rather than just having anecdotal evidence, it would be extremely helpful to have data from social services studies which confirm the degree to which low-income working people are hindered in accepting job offers in another city allowing them to move up from low-income, to middle-income status. Such data will be incorporated in this narrative as it becomes available For example, a recent graduate at UW-Stevens Point may find they are qualified for a job in Wausau, 35 miles from their home, but lack the money to either acquire a personal auto to drive from their home, or to save enough money to move to an apartment near the new job.

For example, from the Central Wisconsin Intercity Bus Feasibility Study:

“When asked who would benefit the most from an intercity bus service, respondents chose low-income people and seniors, followed by traditional commuters, people with disabilities, and students. During the discussion, however, participants expressed additional directions to consider for a potential intercity service’s market:

Low-income persons and seniors should be included as a component of the overall market, but the service should focus primarily on commuters and students. As the economy recovers and gas prices inevitably rise again, the service will be needed to get people to jobs.

There is a strong need to look at the communities from a regional perspective. Many households locate in the midpoint between two employers. Bus service could allow one member of the household to access work without a car.” [4]

The Politics of Blocking Regional Transit Authorities

Here was the original Wisc. Legislative Council report recommending Regional Transit Authorities be enabled, with taxing authority, in Wisconsin.
(Click link-archived on the blog)

Note that as soon as they had a solid, one-party stranglehold over Wisc. government, the Republicans disabled this legislation in the 2011 budget bill. Along with dozens of other measures stripping away local control and authority from local governments.

Apparently, the Bradley Foundation, never a bastion of “progressive Wisconsin” ideas nor ideology, began strategizing in around 2007, to see if they could find a suitable candidate for Governor of Wisconsin who would roll-back the alarming trend towards “sustainability,” renewable energy projects, projects which benefitted the poor and the super-poor and which might lead towards communities taking a greater role in furthering their own autonomy and self-sufficiency. The name “Scott Walker” is said to have come up frequently in these early strategy sessions. Here was a man who could be easily manipulated, owing to an insatiable penchant for personal political power.

Salon-dot-com has a story referencing the 2007 “Conspiracy coalition” against progressivism in Wisconsin, and notably, renewability…The “2007 Summit” which led to the Walker years
(Click link here)


Photo Source: Metrail, a Eurozone company

That was a major blow against sustainability efforts, efforts to reduce carbon emissions, efforts to prepare for petroleum depletion, and generally, everything “green” in Wisconsin. These GOP legislators need to be voted out, all of them who stand in the way of progress.

We see that Wisconsin government has become polarized, with State branches of Governorship, Assembly, State Senate, all regulatory branches and the Supreme Court under the one-party system, and beholden to huge corporate PAC donors on one hand. On the other hand, the Counties, Villages, Towns, Cities, School Boards, and Lake Districts, blocked from raising our own revenues, blocked from regulating our own environments for environmental or public health, and blocked from preparing our regions for a transition from a fossil-fuel based, unsustainable transport system to one that is sustainable and based on renewable energy sources.

Citizens’ alliances: now is the time

I’m thinking that this issue might be a good start for a non-partisan citizens’ campaign, organized around perhaps 6 or 8 multi-county regions of the state (eventually all regions). Citizen activists can get such campaigns rolling, and invite their (non-partisan) elected officers to join such local alliances, hold workshops and other educationals, begin lobbying, write letters incessantly to politicians in the State House, and when these tactics fail, devise tactics that are more bold, attention-getting, and allow less “wiggle-room” for the immobile and immovable politicians now in the State House.

A Citizens’ Alliance should be structured as a membership organization (rather than coalition of already-organized groups). It should invite-in elected representatives from Towns, Villages, Cities, School Boards, Lake Districts, and Counties in Wisconsin. These folks should seek to light a fire under the traditional umbrella organizations such as the Counties’ Association, Towns’ Association, and so forth. In addition, it should include all fired-up individual citizens who understand their own self-interest in pushing forward the regional transit authorities. Citizens’ Alliances such as this one (and there are many more needed, covering a wide range of crisis-level issues in Wisconsin) should welcome people of all parties – including Republican, Democratic, Green Party, Libertarian, and those who are now fed-up with all parties and count themselves as Independents or aggressively non-partisans.

We have the full power of very wealthy and highly-invested groups ranged against us (fossil-fuels corporations, pipeline companies, road builders, asphalt industries, suburban “trophy-home builder” associations, and everything else that depends on urban sprawl that is fueled by petroleum). This is not going to be an easy transition. Jill Stein calls this a “Green New Deal,” but even FDR’s New Deal didn’t have this amount of wealth and power arrayed against it, trying to squelch it.

Renewable energy, public ownership: key factors

I have also concluded in studying these interrelated issues that merely adopting regional mass transit authorities as a core part of our self-governance in Wisconsin, without addressing the energy source, is not going to get us to sustainability—an elusive, nearly mystical standard these days. Regional mass transit must be designed to scale-up rapidly, should be build on core standards (as for example, rail lines were built), and must be designed to start-up on day one on renewable energy, rather than being hybrid fossil-renewable powered. This is because the U.S. oil and gas resource supply is expected to collapse rather rapidly from 2025 A.D. Onward.[Notes 2]

Over the past 35 years, American corporations have become amazingly proficient at using governments at all levels to advance their goals and agendas. This dominance of all aspects of American government, through dominating the elections process at all levels, is being used at present to block any serious attempts to get off of fossil fuels as our only energy source. For example, take a look at how progress towards wind-generated energy has been blocked since Inauguration Day, 2011 in Madison. It is time for citizens, ourselves, to begin building a powerful , unstoppable movement towards meeting our people’s needs to move ourselves around without contributing any further to runaway climate change. These regional mass transit systems must remain in the people’s hands, owned and operated as locally and democratically as feasible, and ultimately linked into a large, national system which can link to our neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico as well.

If you would wish to be a part of such an alliance, which will need to be a several-decades long effort, please send submissions to Let me know if you would want your contributions by-lined, or kept anonymous. This article is archived on the blog, at this link

Thank you for reading and thinking about this critical issue. You may leave critical comments on this WordPress blog.

[1] From Wisconsin Association of Mobility Managers (WAMM) Priorities List: Regional Transit Authority Enabling Legislation – State Priority 2016
Wisconsin is the only Midwest state without enabling legislation to create these authorities. Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) are a quasi-governmental entity that provides a governance structure for a unified transportation system and has taxing authority, therefor offering a funding alternative to property taxes. Regional Transit Authorities allow for a regional and comprehensive look at transportation. They encourage connectivity and multimodal approaches since the planning takes place with one body for the whole region. A multimodal and coordinated system improves the mobility, connectedness, and quality of life for those who are unable to drive themselves, particularly older adults, individuals with disabilities and those with low incomes.

Medical centers, employers, job centers, educational facilities are very often regional in nature; why should transportation be any different? Developing transportation systems requires flexibility to create innovative services that can cross municipal and county borders and account for communities of different sizes. RTAs enable this to be done in a more efficient, effective and sustainable manner. Transportation needs are so often driven by local issues like demographics, geography, and employment. RTAs allow for flexibility to determine the best solutions for local issues and to respond to local needs with the input of the electorate. Through referendum, it is determined locally whether a new tax is levied to support the needs of those in their community. Through the referendum process, people have a voice in determining what transportation infrastructure their community will have and if they are willing to pay for it. With stable and secure funding, systems can plan for future needs instead of responding to the next crisis in funding or system cutbacks necessary to accommodate fluctuations in grant funding.

Transportation systems are a part of the infrastructure that helps people get to jobs, medical appointments, and remain active and engaged members of the community and local economy. Where there are strong systems and meaningful mobility choices, there are strong communities. People want to live and work in these communities and are seeking them out. RTAs serve to strengthen stakeholders’ relationships, streamlining gran applications and system management, and allow for a comprehensive approach to transportation planning.

[2] Experts expressing severe pessimism about the longevity of America’s remaining oil and gas over-supply:

-Art Berman, industry insider.
-Ron Patterson and Dennis Coyne, industry people with a large stable of contributing commenters who offer much original material as well.

-Gail Tverberg, professional actuary. Stresses the importance of the peak of “debt production” in hastening peak oil production.

Thaddeus Patzek, Professor (currently based in Saudi Arabia) covering the oil and gas industry with a more pessimistic perspective on especially fracked natural gas as a sustainable or “bridge” fuel.

-Nicole Foss and Raul Ilargi Meijer, who often cover the oil and gas situation, but of late have focused more on the unsustainable debt loads in the global economy, a strict limiting condition for both further oil and gas industry build-out as well as renewable energy build-out.

Typical fracked-oil field production curve (Bakken Oil Field, mid-2016. “This is what peak oil looks like!”  Your Energy Information Agency (EIA) has these useful “Drilling Productivity Reports” which show how things are going in the fracking oil and gas fields in America.

[3] Sarah James and Torbjörn Lahti, “The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices,” New Society Publishers, 2004.

[4] Central Wisconsin Intercity Bus Study page on Green People’s Media