By Dennis A. Shook, for   Published Feb 01, 2005 at 5:09 AM

{image1} The Metra rail system could be transporting passengers between Kenosha and Milwaukee as soon as 2009.

That is, if the advocates in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties can find enough fiscal fuel to fire up the economic engine the commuter rail line could become.

County executives from the three counties and the mayors of those cities met Jan. 13 to consider how to proceed. And Kenosha County executive Allan Kehl says all six leaders agreed to sign an agreement to proceed, which is being drafted by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

SEWRPC executive director Phil Evenson said last week, "The staff is working on the IGT, and next week we should have a draft ready to send to those local governments. That would move the KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) corridor plan forward to the next step, which is to get into position for the preliminary engineering. At least they would have a firm game plan."

Rosemary Potter, a former Milwaukee legislator who now is executive director for the non-profit rail advocate group Transit Now, expressed optimism that federal money could help.

"This project will cost similarly to other proposals around the country, which will be about $152 million. The federal government will pay for about 80 percent, with 50 percent coming from 'New Starts' program funding. This state has never received 'New Starts' funding because we have never had a commuter rail project. So the Federal Transportation Administration really wants to do a rail project in Wisconsin," says Potter.

She says of the approximately $121.6 million infusion into state, most of the funds will be for new Metra cars. "The good news is that those cars are made in Milwaukee at Super Steel, so we're expanding jobs in the region," she says.

Yet Potter admits planners are not as concerned about the capital costs as questions about how they will meet the annual operating costs, which are projected to be about $15.2 million, after fare box revenues are counted.

Potter says anticipated revenues from the Illinois side of the rail route should provide an estimated $2.5 million to $4 million.

Another financial boost would come from a federal program for mass transit that is expected to provide another $5 million, Potter adds.

"So now that operating cost is down to $8 million per year," Potter says.

But how to pay for it? There are a lot of options.

The most controversial option so far has come from Racine Mayor Gary Becker. He has suggested the possibility of adding a tax of one cent per gallon of gasoline in the three-county region and dedicating that for the rail operations.

But raising a tax in the current "freeze'' climate -- even if it is not a property tax -- is hardly the kind of idea that will pick up a lot of steam with politicians.

Kehl reflects the hesitation. "I know Mayor Becker floated a one cent sales tax on a gallon of gasoline, but I don't necessarily support that. Gas is high enough as it is today. We have a lot of options that we need to research and we've got a little time. In our Jan. 13 meeting, the executives and the mayors of the three communities pledged the support to move this forward -- and that's huge."

Kehl says he expects private businesses to help support the project both with contributions and with lobbying local governments to provide operating costs.

"Bob Mariano, the CEO of Pick 'n Save, really loves the Metra and is its Milwaukee champion," Potter says. "He lives in Lake Forest, Ill. and has just moved his headquarters -- 500 employees -- to Downtown Milwaukee. He wants to offer his employees access to come to Kenosha and Chicago and offer Kenosha and Chicago residents the chance to come work in Milwaukee."

Racine's S.C. Johnson, Inc. has also been a main advocate for the rail "as a tool to help them attract and retain talent from Chicago, Milwaukee and all other points," Potter says. "If we are going to be a globally competitive region, Chicago and Milwaukee have to start working together. And the only way do that is we have the talent that wants to stay here. We are moving from a corporate economy to a knowledge economy so businesses will locate here if we have a labor pool."

Evenson says almost every other metropolitan area in the nation that has such a rail system also has "a dedicated revenue stream, whether it be a sales tax or pieces of a sales (tax). Portland (Ore.) has a payroll tax" to support rail service.

He added that Illinois established a Regional Transit Authority that charges a 1 percent sales tax in Cook County and 0.5 percent sales tax in surrounding counties in the RTA. Evenson says all six southeastern Wisconsin leaders have vowed to work toward some kind of dedicated revenue stream.

Meanwhile, rail advocates see the major hurdle as just getting the system up and running.

A recent SEWRPC alternatives analysis report estimates there would be 362,100 jobs projected within three miles of the proposed Metra stations along the KRM corridor, and SEWRPC's population projection shows 540,000 people living within three miles of the stations.

"The population in the KRM corridor is higher than many other successful commuter rail regions," Potter says. "With the train, people will have access to jobs. We want to show businesses that if they locate here, we can provide them the talent they need."

Potter says the expected cost also includes service for three shuttle systems from downtown Milwaukee, to serve places like Miller Park, the Bradley Center, the museums and even medical facilities. There would also be a shuttle from the Cudahy station to Mitchell International Airport, saving people the need for long-term parking.

The train would operate on the current rail bed, which is intact but will need some repairs, particularly around the Downtown Milwaukee Amtrak station, Potter says.

Current plans would have the Metra extension from Kenosha stop at Somers, Racine, Caledonia, Oak Creek, South Milwaukee, Cudahy and Milwaukee with some likely express trains between Kenosha or Racine to Milwaukee and back, a likely next step.

"My gut hunch is they will start off with seven trains from Milwaukee and Chicago," Potter says. "That's the medium level of service, with early morning, afternoon and late afternoon."

Evenson says the last step will be final engineering and then on to the construction work.

"The way things look now, we could maybe get on the train in 2009 or 2010," Potter adds.

Kehl says he was pleased the state has agreed to help manage the project and says it fits in well with Gov. Jim Doyle's "Grow Wisconsin'' plan.

"This is southeastern Wisconsin, the fastest growing region in state, residentially and economically," Kehl says. "This (train system) would be a key element in helping that.''

Shook is the government/political reporter for the Waukesha Freeman and now reports regularly for the weekly Milwaukee Notes.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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