BRT is the worst fight Gloria Reyes could have picked

The mayoral challenger’s attack on Metro Transit’s redesign epitomizes a profoundly baffling campaign.
An illustration shows a downtown portion of the planned Madison Metro Transit bus route redesign, processed through filters that add blurs and shadows.
Illustration by Scott Gordon, map image via City of Madison. Image description: An illustration shows a downtown portion of the planned Madison Metro Transit bus route redesign, processed through filters that add blurs and shadows.

The mayoral challenger’s attack on Metro Transit’s redesign epitomizes a profoundly baffling campaign.

March 13. A crowd gathered at Covenant Presbyterian Church on the west side for a debate between the two candidates in the April 4 Madison mayoral election. The incumbent, Satya Rhodes-Conway, hadn’t arrived yet. The debate’s moderator had not yet given an introduction. The challenger, Gloria Reyes, just up and grabbed the mic and started talking for a few minutes, an awkward cold-open that both The Cap Times and WORT noted in coverage of the debate. (A YouTube video posted by the University Hill Farms Neighborhood Association, which hosted the forum, appears to have been edited after the fact to remove the footage of this incident; I’ve reached out to the association for comment.) What this accomplished is anyone’s guess, but it was confusing and kind of funny. And that’s Gloria Reyes For Mayor in a nutshell.

Sweep some scraps of paper off the floor after a crabby west-side neighborhood association meeting, and you essentially have the entire contents of Reyes’ mayoral campaign. Even if you’re on Reyes’ side ideologically—i.e. to the right of Rhodes-Conway—it’s often hard to make sense of her proposals for addressing Madison’s problems, and it’s sometimes just as hard to see what is to be gained in the fights she’s picking. 

Reyes, a former deputy mayor, cop, and Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education president, has pitched her platform somewhere between reactionary and progressive. Her campaign has operated in a realm between the muddled and the uncanny. Reyes, a Madison native with a lot of years in local government and politics under her belt, certainly could have mounted a formidable challenge to Rhodes-Conway, but it seems she has barely even bothered. Instead, she seems to have cobbled together some talking points centered around the grievances that have piled up over the past few years among NIMBYs, cops, and the most regressive corners of the business lobby. 


I’ve got my share of issues with the incumbent, but can’t blame her for cruising through debates with Reyes with the same half-amused, half-annoyed posture she adopts during Common Council meetings. Rhodes-Conway’s whole thing is being an urban policy wonk, which holds up very nicely when your opponent is completely unprepared to talk about policy and can’t even upstage you with a little charisma.

That could not be more true when it comes to transit, and Reyes is quite hilariously making this a main point despite it being the greatest strength of Rhodes-Conway’s reelection campaign. Reyes has especially gone out of her way to make a stink about the city’s in-the-works Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. The way she’s approached BRT is a baffling distortion of the issue. Rhodes-Conway can convincingly claim progress on BRT as a crowning achievement of her first term. Promising a tangible benefit and delivering on it is really hard to argue with, any way you cut it. At this target, Reyes has gathered up all the expired ordinance of the anti-BRT crowd (oh sorry, the “I’m not anti-BRT but but but….” crowd) and deployed it once again. 

All these rhetorical bombs are duds on the second go, it turns out: Selective bullshit complaints about process and transparency (opponents had their chance to weigh in, up to and including a grossly underhanded last-minute attempt to delay the project), and the notion that BRT will be bad for State Street (even though comparing the current map with the redesign, reveals that the redesign actually runs buses down less of State Street than the current routes.) 

Reyes’ campaign also claims that Madison can’t sustain the project because we’re kick-starting it with one-time federal funding, as if that’s not true of countless transportation and infrastructure projects across the country. As if most of Madison doesn’t hold an eternal grudge against Scott Walker for making the exact same argument about high-speed rail. Reyes also cites disappointing ridership figures as if they’re a fixed condition rather than something the City can improve by offering better transit service, especially as our population grows. Reyes has even suggested that the impending sale of three state office buildings downtown casts doubt on the demand for transit, as if that’s happening in a vacuum where there isn’t also…new stuff being built downtown and new residents coming into the city.

Perhaps most perniciously, Reyes conflates the clear benefits of BRT with legitimate criticisms of Madison’s recent bus network redesign. True, the new route map Madison Metro plans to adopt this summer is almost shockingly skeletal. It will compromise neighborhoods’ access to buses and require a lot of people to walk longer distances to bus stops. This is a profound disservice to people with disabilities at a time when Madison’s mobility safety net is already frayed. This particular point would be a vulnerability for Rhodes-Conway, if she faced a serious challenger. 

BRT is a part of this redesign, and meant to “complement” the overall system, so in all fairness, it does make sense to talk about the two in the same breath—up to a point. BRT is not the part of the redesign that scales back service or hinders access. In fact, it’s the one part of the redesign that stands as a solid equity win. It’ll improve public transit particularly in the rather sprawl-y areas of the city that also happen to be fairly diverse. 

Anyone who has looked at the redesigned Metro system map next to the current one can understand this. The planned BRT “A” line currently under construction, running east-west, runs more or less the current 06 route and a part of the 73—Junction Road on the West Side to East Wash just short of the Interstate. The BRT “B” line planned for later, running north-south, basically incorporates pieces of the current 04, 21, and 22 routes. Buses on both BRT lines would run every 15 minutes, where currently they run every half-hour. These are bold-strokes crosstown routes that the bus system would need, even in the denser, more equitable map that we should have. 

Take it from someone who uses the 04, 21, and/or 22 routes several times a week: Speeding up these routes will be very helpful and improve on some extremely frustrating aspects of our bus system. Trips that aren’t that far but take way too long would become more manageable. Those of us who currently rely on transfer points would save a little time, too. When we miss a bus, well, that’ll still be a pain but at least there will be less of a wait for the next one.

But the way Reyes talks about this just smooshes all of these changes into one issue. “The current BRT redesign plan needs to be more equitable and is jeopardizing our city services,” reads one of the flailing assertions on her campaign website.

Try as Reyes might to alchemize BRT into a liability for Rhodes-Conway and a looming financial crisis for the city, it’s a strength and will remain one. The mayor ran on getting BRT done, overcame a childish and hyperbolic campaign against routing BRT on State Street, celebrated the groundbreaking on an east-west BRT line in December 2022, and successfully pushed for zoning changes that are meant to complement transit with greater housing density. Now that construction is already underway, Reyes’ position is that we should hold up and audit the program. 

And that’s a campaign promise: “As mayor, I will stop this and pursue a customer-led process to assess our community’s needs around a public transit system that not only helps our most vulnerable communities access economic opportunity, but doesn’t hurt our State Street businesses.” 

In other words, more delay and more study after years of the same, in a futile attempt to somehow please everybody—the very thing Madisonians hate the most in local government. 


Most alarmingly, as The Cap Times‘ Allison Garfield reported on March 22, Reyes has said she would “consider cutting the program altogether.” The Cap Times also notes, in the same story, that “Reyes has never contacted the city’s Metro department to verify her information.” Mind you, this isn’t an accusation from Satya’s campaign or from aggrieved Metro staff. It’s an actual fact that Reyes herself is admitting to. Seriously. Perhaps this isn’t shocking: Reyes’ position on housing suggests she also hasn’t bothered to look at home prices lately. She has even flat-out lied about recent changes to City zoning policy, claiming that “there’s a recent zoning ordinance that eliminated single-family homes in our city.” Not even close: Recent zoning changes make it easier to build multi-unit housing in some areas and allow a greater number of unrelated people to share a housing unit. Single-family homes are in fact still allowed and extant.  

The way Reyes responded to the Cap Times story about her Metro claims also raises serious concerns about how she’d treat the press as mayor. Ahead of a Monday, March 28 mayoral debate, hosted by The Cap Times and Channel 3000, Reyes raised concerns about bias in the Cap Times‘ coverage and asked to see debate questions ahead of time—an unusual request that anyone familiar with candidate debates and basic journalism practice understands to be wildly inappropriate. Cap Times reporter Garfield and Channel 3000’s Naomi Kowles served as moderators for the debate; I can only imagine that Garfield’s presence, as the author of the Metro story, created some friction. 

The Cap Times reports in its follow-up coverage of the debate that the paper and Channel 3000 declined to provide the questions to Reyes, but did agree to have former Channel 3000 editorial director Neil Heinen review them ahead of time, a process both Reyes’ and Rhodes-Conway’s campaigns agreed to. There was also a dispute about a Cap Times cover drawing, which is so inane I’m not even going to get into it. Apparently Paul Fanlund’s March 27 Cap Times column, which uncritically channeled former Mayor Paul Soglin’s criticism of Rhodes-Conway and support of Reyes, did nothing to assuage the Reyes campaign’s concerns. But unlike that column, Garfield’s reporting was thorough and fair.

During the debate, Reyes also complained about the fact that Metro general manager Justin Stuehrenberg had spoken with The Cap Times to rebut her statements: “One of the disturbing things lately is that we’re having City staff respond with questions during a campaign.” There are two reasons why this statement is out of line. One, City staff are supposed to be able to provide information to the public and to policymakers without facing pressure from elected officials or candidates. We at Tone Madison haven’t exactly gone easy on Stuehrenberg and Metro, but Stuehrenberg does have every right to talk openly about goings-on at the agency he runs. Two, when you’re a reporter covering an election where the candidates are making conflicting statements about a key issue, it’s in your job description to reach out to City staff who work directly on that issue and try to get the facts. Reyes has no business telling Stuehrenberg how to discuss the issue or telling Garfield how to cover it.

This behavior towards staff and journalists undermines Reyes’ calls for greater public engagement in local government. While her campaign website calls for a “customer-led process” to guide Madison’s transit system, Reyes doesn’t offer an alternate path forward or a real vision, or even an understanding of the simple reality that how people get around must change to accommodate a climate crisis and a growing population that will require denser housing because space is finite. 

Reyes has no handhold in this cliff. She had an opportunity, perhaps, to target the inequitable aspects of the bus redesign in a more incisive way. But this campaign expresses a generalized commitment to transit while also calling time-out on improvements that are already in progress. If Reyes can’t handle basic scrutiny of her public statements and policy positions, then she’s no champion of transparency and will have a very hard time delivering improvements to transit.

So, fellow bus riders: Let’s suppose that this Armando Iannucci pilot of a campaign actually succeeds, and that Reyes also has the votes on the Common Council to throw a wrench in BRT. When you’re enduring an hours-long bus ride to really only cover a few miles, when you’re enduring another wait at a transfer point, when your planned two-part bus trip gets royally screwed up because the first bus was late… think of Gloria Reyes.

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