County Free Bus-Ride Program Faces Shortfall
Free rides for seniors and disabled could cost $4 million, causing service cuts or fare hikes.
A new county program giving free bus rides to seniors and disabled passengers could leave the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) with a multi- million budget shortfall by the end of the year.
Introduced on March 31, the MCTS GO Pass program provides free bus rides to seniors aged 65 and up and passengers with disabilities. They had previously paid a reduced-fare price of $1.10 per ride. The free-ride program has no income restrictions and is open to all who qualify by providing a doctor’s note or government-issued picture ID card at MCTS headquarters.
To pay for these free rides, the Milwaukee County Board had allocated $822,600 in funding for the GO Pass program in 2015, but at the time figures provided by MCTS estimated that senior riders paid some $4.2 million (through the $1.10 fare) in the prior year, which would suggest the program could overrun its budget by more than $3.3 million. That figure, as MCTS noted, was not precise because no data was available on how many senior rides were on transfers (which were free) and how many seniors bought weekly or monthly passes which would change the amount they paid.
To date the program has provided over two million rides in its first 25 weeks. If all those riders had previously paid $1.10 per ride, that’s a loss of $2.2 million in ticket revenue since the program started. This puts the GO Pass program with a budget shortfall of about $1.4 million with 15 weeks left in the year and free ridership said to be increasing. As the figures in the graph below show, ridership for the free program started low, but has greatly increased through the year, as more users heard about and signed up for the program.
During the week starting August 31st, MCTS provided 121,000 rides to GO Pass users, the highest total seen so far. As of September 21st, 15,509 passes have been claimed.
Even with no further increase, if a 80,000 weekly average of free rides is sustained for the remaining 15 weeks in 2015, the GO Pass would provide another 1.2 million free rides by December 31st, with a potential loss of $1.3 million in ticket revenue (again depending on how many of these riders had previously paid $1.10 per ride.) This would bring the lost revenue total for the year to more than $3.5 million. If ridership stays at the level it did last week (119,000), the total lost revenue from the program for the rest of 2015 could total $1,963,500. This would bring the total estimated lost revenue from the program to about $4.16 million, leaving a shortfall of $3.34 million.
The total county transit budget for 2015 is $165.4 million. The GO Pass program shortfall could create a significant budget issue the county board would need to address. The problem could increase in 2016, when the program is in place for an entire year, and its lost revenue could rise even higher.
The program was originally created by an amendment to the 2015 Milwaukee County budget by sponsoring supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic, Patricia Jursik, Gerry Broderick, Theo Lipscomb, Jason Haas, Peggy Romo West and David Bowen.
“After receiving the estimated financial costs from the Department of Transportation for the GO Pass, we allocated appropriate funding in the 2015 county budget,” said Dimitrijevic via email, who led the charge for the GO Pass program when she was board chairwoman. Dimitrijevic stated that she worked to implement the program because seniors generally live on a fixed income. The program received support from groups such as the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, a Madison-based non-profit organization, and the Make it Work Milwaukee Coalition.
Abele and his staff were surprised by the plan when it was first announced, because they had never heard requests for free rides. “No one has ever asked for free rides,” said Abele’s chief of staff Raisa Koltun, “We consulted with the Department on Aging, and they hadn’t heard any requests for it either.”
Members of the Milwaukee County Department on Aging echoed the statement that seniors in the community never requested free fares from the county, in a November 4th, 2015 letter to the Board. “It is deeply disappointing that no one on the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging (and its committees and workgroups) was consulted about this proposal,” wrote Viola Hawkins, the Chair of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging executive council, and Bob Haase, the Chair of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging Advocacy Committee.
The Abele administration is concerned about the program, said Koltun. It’s too early to tell what the revenue implications will be, she said. However, they are keeping in mind a similar program implemented in Chicago by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, which ended up costing taxpayers up to $116 million dollars a year before being repealed.
“It’s definitely being used more than initially expected,” Koltun said of the program. At the very least, that could have an impact on fuel costs for the buses. In theory, the cost for this program could be offset if the county transit system experienced a significant increase in paid riders, but data from MCTS to date suggests this is not happening.
When asked where the money for any program costs that exceed the originally budgeted $822,600 would come from, Koltun replied that she did not know. However, she added that if Abele was going to make an investment in the transit system, it would have been in expanding routes and decreasing travel time for passengers. Bill Zaferos, the Public Information Manager for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, said in an interview that he didn’t know “off hand” where the money for any GO Pass expenditures beyond what was budgeted would come from.
Urban Milwaukee will continue to monitor ridership levels and program funding. My colleague Jeramey Jannene first reported on the issue in November of 2014.
More about the GO Pass Program
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Goodbye to MCTS Free Ride - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 26th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Fixes GO Pass - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 29th, 2017
- Murphy’s Law: How to Destroy a Transit System - Bruce Murphy - May 24th, 2016
- Eyes On Milwaukee: Is Free Pass Bleeding County Transit? - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 2nd, 2016
- County Free Bus-Ride Program Faces Shortfall - Graham Kilmer - Sep 28th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Another Bad Transit Plan By County Board - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 6th, 2014