Stand on a cold street corner, avoiding eye contact with the
throng of fur-hooded folk huddled around you and stare down the horizon, trying
to catch a glimpse of the high beams that signal your bus has arrived, several
minutes late. Pull out your trusty bus pass, slide it through and sit with a
sigh in the aisle seat.

That?s the extent to which most of us think about our public
transportation, but unless we want this to be the picture of the future as well
as the present, our apathy needs to change, and fast. The Dane County Board
will debate today on the date to put to referendum a measure that would raise a
half-cent sales tax to create a Regional Transit Authority to govern transit
throughout the county. RTA?s first big project would be a commuter transit line
that would span from Middleton across the isthmus to Sun Prairie.

But supervisor Jack Martz of Fitchburg is pushing to have
Dane County residents vote as early as April 1, effectively sending the project
to die. The concept of rail transport is still only a dim echo in most
residents? minds of the city?s crash-and-burn streetcar initiative, but Madison
may be laughing a very short way to Mendota bank.

Clearly, Madison is facing a slowly mounting congestion
crisis, caught between a lake and a wet place. Commuter traffic doubled in the
last decade, causing Madison to spend millions on road construction that
alleviates the symptoms, but not the underlying problem of a city with too much
rush hour traffic. Transport 2020, a committee of university, city, county and
state representatives that recommended the commuter rail project, predicts by
2030 Dane County?s population will reach 600,000. Only 48 percent of those will
reside in Madison, but 64 percent will work there, which could result in
gridlock, as there is little room for expansion on East Washington Avenue.

The city?s public transportation situation still seems rosy
at the moment, as Madison Metro Transit recently celebrated its highest
ridership since 1982, with more than 12.6 million riders last year. This is
largely thanks to increased use of free or discounted bus pass programs offered
to students, faculty, state employees and those who work for participating
businesses. But one need look no further than Metro Transit?s constantly
threatened budget to see that when money comes into the picture, public
transportation no longer is everyone?s friend.

If even Madison residents who witness the city?s congestion
every day are hesitant to invest in mass transit, its suburban and exurban
towns and villages are unlikely to be persuaded in less than two months that a
commuter rail line with start-up costs of $250 million is a necessary purchase.
Expansions to other Dane County locales, even Martz? Fitchburg, are planned,
but a rail sales tax in east Bristo or Utica has as much chance of passing now
as most Madison residents do of pinpointing either of those places on a map.

Supervisor Martz knows a swift referendum could stop the
project cold, as a bill allowing the creation of sales tax-funded RTAs is still
in the works in the state Assembly. Federal subsidy is also still uncertain and
much less likely to happen under the Bush administration. While endless
committee meetings and debate could be a fate worse than ballot death for mass
transit, Dane County simply needs more time to determine if the project is
feasible and equitable for its residents.

An aisle seat to a burgeoning metropolis could be yours, if
the price is right.

?

Tim Williams ([email protected])
is a senior majoring in English.