Janesville City Council decides it will not decide on transportation utility next month

Ashley McCallum, The Janesville Gazette, Wis.
·4 min read

Feb. 23—JANESVILLE — The Janesville City Council will not vote on a proposed transportation utility next month as anticipated, but some council members hope to bring the utility to a vote later on.

The council voted 5-1-1 on Monday to pause action on a proposed transportation utility until after a new council is seated in April. Jim Farrell voted against and Doug Marklein, who is running for reelection, abstained.

The vote will not halt all work on the proposed creation of a transportation utility, but it will prevent the council from taking official action.

Paul Benson said he wants members of the council who will return in April to continue working with city staff and the public on refining the proposed utility and garnering public feedback.

Council members are specifically interested in talking further with the business community, which would bear the most obvious financial impact if a utility goes into effect.

Forward Janesville, the city's chamber of commerce, issued a memo last week asking the council to delay a decision so the business community could have input.

Nine representatives of the business community wrote to the council prior to Monday's meeting opposing the utility and expressing the desire to have more input, Sue Conley, council president, said.

Few opportunities have been allowed so far for public comment on the topic. Previous study sessions did not include time for taking public comments.

A timeline from city staff had the council taking a vote on the utility March 22 for a 2022 implementation.

Council members largely thought Monday night that there are too many remaining questions and not enough public input to make a decision by then.

Another significant factor was that, come April, at least three and potentially four city council seats would be occupied by new members. Conley, Farrell and Tom Wolfe are not running for reelection this spring.

Council members had been concerned about bringing new members up to speed, which conflicted with the city's timeline that some people characterized as aggressive.

The council discussed the utility for most of a meeting Monday night that lasted more than three hours.

A transportation utility functions like a water, stormwater or trash utility, implementing a user-based fee to pay for road repair. The advantage it provides, some argue, is using cash to pay for road maintenance instead of borrowing.

The utility would charge property owners a per-trip fee based on the use of the property, whether commercial or residential. Every time a vehicle leaves or enters a driveway counts as one "trip," and the number of trips determines how much a property owner pays.

Trip averages are determined by the Institute of Transportation Engineers' national trip generation data used frequently in construction.

Council members Monday heard a more detailed description of how fees would be established.

All single- and two-family residential houses would have fees determined on an average of 9.4 trips per day.

But trip calculations for commercial properties differ widely. It would take the city months to determine how to apply the trip data and formula to each individual property, interim Finance Director Dave Godek said.

The city has already identified at least 87 different classifications of land use and more would likely be identified as work continues, Godek said.

Fee calculations differ depending on land use and size.

For example, churches generate, based on the national data, about seven trips per 1,000 square feet, meaning a 1,000-square-foot church would pay less than a 10,000-square-foot church.

Adjustments would have to be made to accommodate seasonal businesses and mixed-use properties, Godek said.

The council has suggested eliminating the city's wheel tax and borrowing some money in the first five years of the program to offset the fee.

But council members said Monday it might be worth reexamining other models given the sticker shock many experienced when they saw 20-year fee projections presented earlier this month.

A representative from the city's consulting firm said figures now are conservative and could go down in implementation, but he was not sure by how much.

The city currently fixes 12 miles of road each year on top of other as-needed maintenance.

Road construction and maintenance are funded now through three primary channels: 68% of the cost is paid through borrowing, 18% through the stormwater utility and 14% through the wheel tax.

City officials say the borrowing method is unsustainable.

Ahead of Monday's meeting, city staff recommended approving the utility in March but also lowering the city's maximum allowance for debt issuance to ensure more debt would not replace the savings generated because of the utility.