Matthew Wisla

Why City Workers Can’t Get to Suburban Jobs

Milwaukee County Transit has reduced service by 14% since 2000, and 13% of city households lack a car.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Apr 15th, 2015 11:37 am
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A series of state budget cuts prevent the bus system from upgrading service to improve travel times and reinstate more routes to reach outlying job centers. (Photo by Alhaji Camara)

A series of state budget cuts prevent the bus system from upgrading service to improve travel times and reinstate more routes to reach outlying job centers. (Photo by Alhaji Camara)

It’s only about 10 miles from Beverly Orlando’s bus stop at 35th St. and Fond Du Lac Avenue to her job at the Institute of Technology and Academics on the far north side of Milwaukee near Brown Deer, but if she doesn’t leave her home by 5:30 a.m. she’ll be late for her 7:00 a.m. start time. Orlando has worked as a janitor at the school for about two years.

Boarding a Blue Line bus at 5:36 a.m. one recent morning she said, “The buses are OK, just as long as they come!”

Orlando is fortunate to be able to reach a job on the outskirts of Milwaukee from her Sherman Park neighborhood. Despite growing numbers of jobs located outside of Milwaukee’s central city, many neighborhood residents continue to be unable to reach potential employers by bus.

State budget cuts have severely hampered Milwaukee County Transit System’s ability to connect city residents with outlying jobs. Currently there is no long-range planning taking place at MCTS to reverse trends in service cutbacks and meet the needs of job holders and job hunters for the long term.

It has been decades since the city was an engine for regional job growth. “Most of the job growth in recent years is either at the outer parts of the county or outside of the county,” said Kristi Luzar, deputy director of programs, Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin. “The biggest problem facing many people in the city is getting connections to jobs.”

Employment in Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties increased by 56,271 from 1994 to 2009, while the city lost 27,858 jobs, according to a report published earlier this year by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Reaching suburban employment centers can be challenging for city residents. About 13 percent of city households don’t have access to a car, according to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

State budget cuts that began in 2001 forced MCTS to eliminate routes and now the bus system reaches about 1,300 fewer employers than it would have before the cuts began. Approximately 30,900 workers are employed by those businesses in an average year, according to the Center for Economic Development.

The MCTS says it has reduced bus service 14.5 percent since 2000 in response to successive rounds of state budget cuts. The most recent cut came in the 2011 biannual budget when the MCTS state appropriation was slashed by 10 percent. Although about 4 percent of the funding was restored in a later budget, MCTS is currently operating under an approximate $4.1 million shortfall in state money compared to the 2009 budget.

Last month MCTS added new shuttle routes to Brown Deer and Oak Creek to expand suburban bus service, and alternate funding sources have been used recently to add three express routes and bus lines to suburban job and commercial centers. Unfortunately, as the Center for Economic Development and transit experts point out, the long-term pattern of service decline has been slowed but not reversed.

Slow going

City residents such as Orlando who are fortunate enough to have a job outside the central city that they can reach on public transit face another challenge: the time needed to reach outlying areas. Long distances along congested roadways, frequent stops and the need to transfer between MCTS and suburban bus systems extend commute times. However, faced with similar challenges other cities have improved bus transit times by embracing readily available strategies and technologies, according to a recently published report, Picking Up The Pace, from Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum.

Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, sees opportunities for increasing bus transit speed and efficiency. (Photo by Matthew Wisla)

Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, sees opportunities for increasing bus transit speed and efficiency. (Photo by Matthew Wisla)

Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, acknowledges the fiscal challenges faced by the county and MCTS noting, “They deserve a lot of credit for creatively maneuvering and avoiding the type of draconian service cuts” many observers believed were unavoidable in the face of state cutbacks. But Henken thinks that improving bus service would help meet employment needs of central city residents while making bus transit more appealing for a wide range of riders. “It’s time to think about whether there are some relatively low cost and common sense improvements that should be considered for our bus system,” he said.

“Transit options are available that would be relatively easy to do with a little more resources but would add a lot of value to the system,” said Luzar.

Solutions that have worked in other cities include bus-only lanes and shoulders, increased bus stop spacing and giving buses priority at traffic lights. With signal priority, buses automatically communicate with upcoming traffic lights to extend green lights or change red lights to green.

The system is being used in several cities including Las Vegas, and Chicago is planning to deploy it along select routes. Studies show the technology improves travel times by 5 to 10 percent. About half of Milwaukee’s intersections are already equipped with a similar technology allowing emergency vehicles to trigger green lights.

Bus rapid transit is another option for increasing bus travel speeds. It typically allows buses to drive in dedicated lanes, make fewer stops compared to local service, employ signal priority technology and use kiosks at the bus stop so riders can pay before boarding. According to the Public Policy Forum, bus rapid transit is similar to light rail in many ways but is more flexible and less expensive to implement. It has increased transit system ridership in cities such as Minneapolis.

According to Brian Dranzik, Milwaukee County director of transportation, the unpredictability of state funding combined with successive budget cuts severely restricts the ability of MCTS to readily embrace service enhancements such as those in the Public Policy Forum report, or upgrade service to connect city neighborhoods with outlying job centers. MCTS is not currently studying or implementing any options for increasing bus speed. “There’s a price tag with all of them,” Dranzik said.

State and local politicians have been unable to reach a consensus on providing MCTS with a consistent revenue stream that isn’t subject to the unpredictable process of state budget negotiations, according to Henken and other experts. The state currently funds about 41 percent of the MCTS budget. The fare paid by riders is the second largest budget component at approximately 39 percent.

“We work on the assumption that we’ll have level funding from the state, but if that gets cut we’re scrambling,” said Dranzik.

The transit system has been in decline just when city residents need it most. “Seemingly forgotten is the fact that the transit system of today is a shell of its former self, and that jobs continue to decentralize at a rapid pace,” the Center for Economic Development report said. “Serious rebuilding efforts supported by secure and long-term sources of funding will need to be undertaken to avoid further isolating transit dependent job holders and job seekers from the region’s job growth centers.”

Referring to state budget cuts that hit MCTS without warning, Dranzik said, “We want to be in a place where what we offer to the public is stable and predictable.”

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

25 thoughts on “Why City Workers Can’t Get to Suburban Jobs”

  1. Matt says:

    This is so damn backwards its frightening. Waukesha County employers need workers. These employers do not pay enough to attract people who are rich enough to live nearby. But there are all these poor minorities who live 20 miles away. How about we go pick them up? No, lets instead ask Milwaukee to pay to ship them out, and then come pick them up.

    Other more equitable options could include

    affordable housing in Waukesha– New Berlin sounds nice, except for all the racism when they try to build some public housing

    living wages- Everyone always talks about all the employees they need out there, but perhaps the supply would go up if they would pay a welder enough to not have to work on the weekends.

    Subsidize their own damn problem- Waukesha needs workers. They can pay their own damn money to get them. Or, if they can’t fill the demand for workers out there, build the businesses where they belong. Near the workers. In Milwaukee.

    The idea that Milwaukee is supposed to pay for the needs of Waukesha County, thereby supporting the low wage employers that they thrive on out there is ridiculous. They want workers, come and get them. But don’t ask us to pay to do them a favor.

  2. Milwaukeean says:

    Even more frightening than Matt’s comment about Milwaukee having to pay to bring employees in and out of Waukesha, is how deliberate it is that these jobs are not even in Milwaukee at all…this is a deliberate attempt at keeping the “unwanted” city-folks out of the suburbs. Milwaukee should seriously think about building toll-roads to make the fancy, racist suburbanites pay for their exclusive use of Milwaukee roads and then make sure we have our elected politicians bring those jobs (back) to the City. Charge a premium toll on the Waukesha side of Milwaukee County.

  3. David says:

    The suburbs and outer areas of the region do not want people of color to have access to their communities. A regional bus would allow people to travel freely. Also, the state legislature made it illegal for a regional authority to be established in SE WI. We’re the only region in the state where an authority is illegal. The FOX Valley wants one and there is ongoing discussion. MCTS has no dedicated funding and has been cut drastically over the last 10-15 years. Our current brand of Republican leadership has started a culture war with the city. Divide and conquer.

  4. Casey says:

    I agree with the above frustration but if the companies out there really needed people that one of two things would happen: wages would be increased or they would relocate jobs closer to their workforce. Because they do neither, they either don’t need to or are setting themselves up for long term failure but only time can tell.
    I like the idea of tolls because it would be nice if the roads did more to offset the cost of having them but in the same breadth a suburbanite working downtown baking $70k a year would hardly notice the $2 toll while the inner person driving out to work at a warehouse making $25k a year would feel the pinch even more.
    The ideal solution would be more regional cooperation not only regarding transit but also land use/zoning. Discourage companies from moving far from their workforce to a previously undeveloped area which forces the municipality to upgrade and spend more on infrastructure. This region has some of the most productive soil in the country but it’s being gobbled up by subdivisions and industrial parks.

  5. AG says:

    It would help if the county didn’t hand out free rides for people who haven’t shown a need for free rides… I am a big supporter of creating transit connections to job centers outside the city, but man it’s hard to back the MCTS when the county makes foolish decisions like that.

  6. PMD says:

    It does seem foolish to spend a lot of money on free rides for certain segments of the population when there is such demand and need for connecting transit to job centers outside the city.

  7. casey says:

    How about making MCTS free for all county residents? Currently fares make up less than a third of MCTS’s funding. More people ride the bus; less money needed to build and maintain roads and hwys because there will be less wear and tear makes Milwaukee County a more attractive job center and thus expand the tax base. I know it will never fly but it’s an idea that been floated in other places.

  8. Beer Baron says:

    We need to get aggressive. We can improve the system at least in the city or in the county. However, Marina needs to stop with the power trip and work with Abele on the common good. She stripped the bus system of funding with the silly free rides no one asked for that are going to crush the system further. She halted the contracting that has helped every other transit system in the nation while preserving union jobs. She refuses to do any improvements and prefers slacktivist causes like banning travel to Indiana (something we already don’t do as a county) or marching with signs.

    Time to get serious on real transit improvements. Push the county. Push the city too. If we push city-heavy transit improvements with moves it can do (like a utility fee for rapid transit), then we can get push forward that we need.

  9. Cassandra says:

    I can say with some confidence that MCTS is not very happy about the County Board’s decision. Many in the aging and disability communities are also not happy about the County Board’s decision. What’s the use of free rides on a system that can no longer afford to run routes to where you need to go? Can we all write to the County Board about this? They seem to be under the impression that this will win them votes for “supporting transit”; but actually we’re just all scratching our heads and thinking we’d better raise up a new batch of candidates for the County Board.

  10. Joe says:

    Tom Barrett refused to work with Kohl’s (a MAJOR corporate presence in the region….just look at the enormous campus on Silver Spring in Menomonee Falls) to bring them into the city. If he won’t work with them, you know he won’t even consider working with smaller companies. He can find tens of millions (maybe hundreds by the time it’s over) for a trolley that duplicates bus routes but he can’t find any to improve the buses? Milwaukee is a tax island and the politicians work very hard to keep it that way. Any takers on a bet that local politicians will do little to nothing for the proposed arena and possibly kill the project?

  11. PMD says:

    I thought Milwaukee did try to work with Kohl’s, and the company decided that it would cause too much staff disruption to move from the suburbs to downtown?

  12. Dave Reid says:

    @Joe That’s simply untrue. The city worked with the county for months on the Kohl’s deal and made a very substantial offer. The combined city / county deal included TIF, Park East land, a massive pile of tax credits, bus passes, free advertising at the airport and so on. The question to me has always been how did Kohl’s explain to shareholders why they didn’t take what was an impressive offer. Further, the county is responsible for the buses, not the city (aka Barrett).

    PS I should also note the city brought Manpower downtown as well.

  13. PMD says:

    Yeah Dave Reid I thought Joe was engaging in revisionist history.

  14. Joe says:

    Kohl’s did list employee disruption as a reason, but that was tertiary after cost of construction on smaller parcels of land available and higher taxes (http://www.jsonline.com/business/kohls-says-no-to-downtown-rn46va8-139339443.html). Urban Milwaukee ran an article that showed that the city and county did make attempts that seem to be really good most of us who do not operate in the realm of major corporate America (http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2012/02/21/kohls-the-moral-of-the-story/). The size and scope of the corporate headquarters project (along with subsequent expansions and spin off projects) justify the numbers offered and show that even those, seemingly generous, numbers were insufficient to close the deal.

  15. Joe says:

    “Generous” is subjective. The numbers were large, true…….they just weren’t large enough to convince a major corporation to relocate. The point remains……the city and county……..don’t do enough to court business of any size; spend money on foolish transportation projects instead of fixing a system in need, and is a tax island that actively prevents businesses from setting up shop in the city.

  16. Dave Reid says:

    @Joe Sooo… Tom Barrett (the city) did in fact work with Kohl’s. As did both NM and Manpower and they have been able to build headquarters in downtown Milwaukee, by working with the city. And there were others smaller firms, Charter Wire (expansion and move), Palermos, Ingeteam, Helios, Talgo (until WI bailed on its legal obligation). I can go on.

  17. Jill says:

    Where was this article during the public discussion on the streetcar. This is the very reason I thought the streetcar was the most idiotic idea I’ve ever heard. It just does not connect people dependent on mass transit to the areas where jobs are. Nor is it flexible enough to allow for routes to be changed as employers change locations.

  18. AG says:

    @Dave Reid, I just LOVE what Gardner Denver is doing with that building in the 3rd ward, don’t you? So glad the city helped lure in their international HQ.

  19. AG says:

    @Jill, the street car works in conjuction w/ the busses. Suburban bus routes can bring people to the downtown job centers. It’s a different situation than the one mentioned in this article.

    And side note, the permanence of the route is what draws employers and other developments in… they chase the route, the route isn’t supposed to chase them.

  20. Dave Reid says:

    @AG Oddly I haven’t kept up with the Gardner Denver deal well enough, but yes the city helped there too…

  21. Milwaukeean says:

    I would like to know how a business determines to keep their headquarters outside of ANY CBD. Is it the available qualified workforce? Is it tax breaks? Is it based on where their CEO’s live? Data must exist somewhere that explains why a company does business outside of any CBD. I am trying to find reasonable issues that would prevent a business from staying inside of it’s own CBD area.

  22. AG says:

    Cost. It’s much cheaper to be outside the CBD.

  23. jake says:

    There’s been a concerted decades long effort by rightwing asshats from Charlie Sykes to Walker, Vos, etc…. to kill good public transportation in Milwaukee and to surrounding areas. The people they cater to are white flight bigots in the WOW counties.

  24. Jake says:

    The long term goal is to get business out of the city, to hurt Milwaukee’s power, and decrease the voting effectiveness of its population.

    It’s worked.

  25. MN says:

    come on people take ownership, accountability and responsibility.

    not blame, excuses and denial

    I’ve watched many immigrants from my family do it all them selves, don’t blame the system, figure it out and succeed, PERIOD

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