Metro's rapid transit plan

A Madison Metro Transit System bus turns onto State Street from the Capitol Square this year.

AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

Credit Metro Transit for having the foresight to propose a bus rapid transit, or BRT, system that could significantly cut down on cross-town travel times.

But if taking the bus is time-consuming now, the road to BRT is likely to be much longer and slower than the 11 miles and hour-plus to get from the West Side to East Towne Mall.

Metro’s proposal hinges on a couple of bets that don’t seem likely to pay off any time soon.

The first is that the federal government will cough up enough in transportation funding to pay for many of the buses and much of the infrastructure for BRT.

Metro spokesman Mick Rusch confirmed Thursday that the system would seek money through the Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grants program. That was one of several programs Republican President Donald Trump targeted for cuts, and it’s still unclear what funds a Republican Congress will provide as it pursues large tax cuts that by themselves will even further balloon the national debt.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, of Black Earth, vowed to fight for federal BRT funding, but neither he nor Republican Sen. Ron Johnson or Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office was willing to predict the program’s prospects.

Then there’s what Metro hopes could be a primary funding source for BRT operations — a regional transit authority to levy a new tax to pay for public transportation.

I don’t really understand why anyone from any part of the political spectrum should object to people in urban areas opting to devote more of their hard-earned tax dollars to government-run public transit than to gas and vehicle repair.

Nevertheless, the Republicans who have controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office for almost all of the last six years have shut RTAs down. RTA proponents can do little more than find a Democrat who can beat Gov. Scott Walker and hope the U.S. Supreme Court overturns legislative district maps gerrymandered by Republicans to favor their candidates.

Finally, there is the perception among some that public transit is a kind of welfare.

Federal, state and local dollars are needed to keep Metro’s existing system afloat, and fares and advertising revenue aren’t expected to cover BRT’s costs, either. And it’s not clear yet how the addition of BRT might allow Metro to save money by curtailing parts of the rest of its system.

“It wouldn’t be so much as routes being removed, as it would be Metro’s overall system would be adjusted to work efficiently with the BRT system,” Rusch said. “For example, a peak-hour route currently that has 15-minute frequency might change to 30 minutes because the high-frequency BRT is operating in the same corridor.”

Subsidizing public transit can upset people who prefer driving themselves. While hundreds of millions in borrowed dollars are necessary to maintain the roads system in Wisconsin, private vehicle transit at least enjoys the veneer of self-sustainability by way of gas taxes and vehicle fees for road construction.

Despite action that saves energy and curbs climate change, public transit’s generally poorer, more racially diverse riders don’t get the same deference.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.