A bus reads “Vote Today” with the Wisconsin State Capitol in the background.
A city bus reads “Vote Today” as it passes State Street in Madison, Wis., on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022, while the sun sets on the Wisconsin State Capitol in the background. (Amena Saleh / Wisconsin Watch)
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Wisconsin Watch readers have submitted questions to our statehouse team, and we’ll answer them in our series, Ask Wisconsin Watch. Have a question about state government? Ask it here.

Question: Why is there no public transit advocate in the state Legislature?

There are public transit advocates in the Capitol. Democratic lawmakers who represent urban areas like Milwaukee regularly make the case for more state funding for mass transit like buses, passenger rail and other services, but they have served in the minority since 2010.

Those who work on the issue regularly aren’t surprised by the perception that their voices aren’t louder.

Gary Goyke has lobbied for public transit in some form since 1984. He said the Republican-controlled Legislature has been historically hostile to public transit, pointing to a 2011 decision to repeal the state’s regional transit authorities.

State funding for mass transit peaked at $118 million that same year. Lawmakers then reduced that amount by 10%, and it remains lower 12 years later.

“Speaker (Robin) Vos is a very effective and strong opponent of public transportation,” Goyke said.

Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to requests for comment.

This year lawmakers announced a 2% increase in state operation assistance to $113.5 million in 2023-24 and $115.2 million in 2024-25.

Republicans also removed mass transit funding from the transportation agency’s segregated account that’s largely funded by fuel taxes. Now that it’s lumped into the state’s general fund, mass transit fans like Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, have warned “it is going to have to compete with everything else that we provide funding for.”

Goyke’s son, Evan, a Democratic representative from Milwaukee, has advocated for increasing transit funding to stanch the flow of working people from the state.

“We are not growing fast enough — that younger demographic that is leaving Wisconsin for more urbanized metro areas want a lifestyle that allows them to get around via mass transit,” he told his colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee on June 13. “The least we could do would be restore the cuts that were made a decade ago and make them whole.”

Wisconsin Public Transportation Association lobbyist AJ Wilson said this year’s 2% increase is not enough given the needs in both large cities and rural areas.

“Not even counting inflation we receive less funding in mass transit aid than we did 12 years ago,” Wilson said.

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Jacob Resneck joined Wisconsin Watch in 2022 via Report for America, covering threats to democracy with an emphasis on rights in the workplace. Previously, he worked in Juneau, Alaska as an editor and reporter for the nonprofit public media consortium CoastAlaska. Before that he spent more than eight years abroad reporting from Germany, Turkey, the Balkans and Middle East. He’s also worked for weekly and daily newspapers in rural Northern California where he grew up and New York’s Adirondack Mountains. He now lives in Oshkosh with his wife, a poet and teacher and their two young children.