Vicki McKenna and Mitch Henck and RTA

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Posted by Reader on November 09, 2009 at 11:57:30:

Conducting the opposition: Retired music professor fighting commuter rail

The Capital Times

Bill Richardson was a recently retired University of Wisconsin music professor in the summer of 2007 when he found himself at a Dane County Board meeting. The draw was a discussion about whether to signal support to the state Legislature for a regional transit authority, which would have the power to levy a sales tax for commuter rail and other transit improvements.

Richardson, a longtime member of the Republican Party of Dane County and someone who considered himself an opponent of local commuter rail, was recruited by fellow Republican and Sun Prairie City Council member Jon Freund to speak before the County Board. With more time on his hands in retirement, Richardson had decided to become more active in the party and other causes, and this was one of his first steps.

Richardson says he was shocked as he heard County Board Supervisor Tom Stoebig of Madison refer to RTA opponents as "cave" people (an acronym referring to "citizens against virtually everything"), a statement that Richardson says showed an amazing lack of respect for citizens.

"It was like a gut punch to me," says Richardson, who lives in Middleton. "I'm sitting there, I've got a doctorate, I'm 64 years old. I'm not stupid."

But Richardson also says that when he went up to the podium to speak, county supervisors gave him their full attention and listened to his criticisms, making him believe that he could perhaps make a difference in the debate that at the time did not have organized RTA opponents outside of talk radio.

More than two years later, Richardson has been an instrumental part of creating that organized opposition, focused largely on the RTA's potential to bring commuter rail to the Madison area. Richardson is the face of a loose coalition of people who run the anti-commuter rail website The Great Train Robbery. He appears at most public meetings related to the RTA debate and makes more than a few appearances on talk radio with local hosts Vicki McKenna and Mitch Henck.

Although the County Board voted Thursday to create an RTA, Richardson helped bring out about 100 people in opposition, a number nearly equal to those who registered in support. With County Board elections in April and a potential referendum on a sales tax for the RTA next year, Richardson says the debate on transit is far from over, and he expects to be in the thick of it as it continues.

Though opponents criticize the sometimes shrill tone of his online persona, those on both sides of the debate credit Richardson as an effective and engaging communicator, particularly in person. Despite strong feelings against commuter rail and the RTA, which he says would not be necessary to expand the bus system or to improve transit in other ways, Richardson is a pleasant and good-humored opponent who isn't rattled by a good debate. He and others in the anti-rail crowd, most notably McKenna and former County Board Supervisor David Blaska, took the "cave people" crack and have turned it into a rallying cry for the anti-train cause. "Proud to be a CAVEMAN" T-shirts have proliferated -- the acronym now stands for Citizens Against Voting for Endless Madison Area Nonsense.

Freund, for his part, was pleasantly surprised to see Richardson take on the anti-RTA cause, adding that as an elected official in Sun Prairie, he doesn't have as much time to dedicate to any one issue.

"I didn't really see him taking it on at quite this level, but in past efforts that he's done, he really takes these causes to heart, and if he's behind something, he's behind it," he says.

Richardson says his involvement in the transit issue has been part interest, part circumstance. While working as a professor specializing in the trombone, Richardson also served as a chief warrant officer and bandmaster for the Army National Guard. While he was serving, he wanted to avoid being politically active. Upon his retirement, though, Richardson has had more time for politics. He currently serves as the first volunteer "media coordinator" for the Republican Party of Dane County and has started up a monthly get-together for area conservatives called "Pints and Politics," which often features local conservative politicians as guest speakers.

The Great Train Robbery website, which is non-partisan but supported by the local Republican Party, has been the main beneficiary of Richardson's time. It's not that he has anything against trains, he says. "I love trains. Everybody loves trains. There's something romantic about them."

His main issue with them in Dane County is the population of the area they would serve (less than a half-million people currently) and his belief that the trains would cause further congestion for downtown drivers, and cost people a significant amount of money for their trouble. Rather, Richardson says there are more creative and practical solutions to traffic congestion, such as promoting staggered work times for public employees, telecommuting and improved bus service that could prove more effective at a much lower cost.

Richardson is hardly alone in his point of view on transit costs, but what sets him far apart is his level of activism, particularly as a conservative in a political landscape dominated by liberals.

"Bill's been good about saying if we want to get this message out, we've got to play ball on the same ball field and get people out," Freund says. "I think often times the counter side says 'We're not going to win,' and so we stay home and we're a little later to the punch."

Those who have long supported an RTA in the Madison area, though, see Richardson's activism as problematic in some ways. While no one will complain about active engagement from the public, Richardson's online and talk radio persona -- which in many ways differs significantly from his manner in person -- is bare-knuckled. On The Great Train Robbery website, RTA supporters on the County Board are "trainiacs," and part of the site is devoted to photos of traumatic train crashes. Critics have said the information on the website is often cherry-picked to paint the worst possible image of mass transit, although Richardson is adamant about the accuracy of his statistics.

Richardson says he did go back and forth about including the train accident pictures, preferring to use numbers -- and lots of them -- to make his case against commuter rail in Dane County. But he makes no apologies for including the photos. They're all in the news, he says, and his goal has been not only to inform, but to motivate what he considers a majority of Dane County residents to speak up against the estimated $255 million expense for a commuter rail line between Middleton and the town of Burke.

County Board Chairman Scott McDonell, while acknowledging Richardson as a compelling figure in the RTA debate in Dane County, argues that he is a relative newcomer to those discussions. Compared with people like RTA advocate Dick Wagner, a former County Board chairman who has worked on transit plans for the county for decades, Richardson's two-year resume is thin, McDonell says.

He is also quick to point out that Richardson's strong opposition was ultimately unsuccessful at Thursday's County Board meeting, where an RTA was approved on a 20-16 vote. While many people spoke against the RTA at that meeting, those who support Richardson often don't have a strong alternative, McDonell says.

"I think that the biggest problem they have is they don't want anything to happen except more roads," he says. "I think people understand, at least in this community, that that means sprawl and highways and gridlock, and that has not been a successful model."

Richardson doesn't apologize for supporting more roads, including a proposed North Mendota Parkway northwest of Madison and a bypass further south of the Beltline. After all, he says, more than 90 percent of people have a car or access to a car, so spending for roads, which also can cost millions in tax dollars, at least goes toward transportation that gets heavy use. Richardson also points to the large number of opponents at Thursday's meeting and a closer County Board vote than in years past as signs of the success of his work.

As County Board elections roll around in April, Richardson says he'll be working to elect more supervisors in line with his thinking. Actions taken against the wishes of a large number of constituents can have consequences at the ballot box if people are motivated enough to get out the vote, he says, and he's happy to help provide that motivation. If a referendum on an RTA plan is held in November 2010, as supporters have said, he says he'll also be working against that -- particularly if it includes a commuter rail option.

Supporters of the RTA also worry about what Richardson's effect will be on future discussions of transit. County Board Supervisor Mark Opitz of Middleton, who supported the RTA, says Richardson is an effective advocate for his more conservative views on transit, but Opitz adds that ultimately, that effectiveness has led to more polarization and less room for meaningful dialogue.

In particular, Opitz says Richardson has effectively narrowed the discussion about the RTA to commuter rail, marginalizing discussion about expanded regional bus service, express buses and other options like shared-ride taxis that an RTA could also bring to the Madison area.

"I don't dislike Bill, but I wish he would use his abilities in a different way," Opitz says. "Based on the knowledge he has, when he has the mic, he ought to seize the opportunity to correct misstatements or misinformation, and to present the whole picture. But I understand that doing so wouldn't always help him accomplish his political objectives."

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