County Exec Candidates Debate Transit
Is the county bus system on the upswing or declining?
Chris Abele‘s View:
Tens of thousands of people in Milwaukee County depend on the bus every day to get to work and school, but when I took office in 2011, our transit system was in decline. For a decade preceding my election, transit saw cuts in routes or fare increases every year during Scott Walker’s tenure.
While the County Board, including then-County Supervisor Chris Larson, did their share of complaining, nobody did anything to address our transit problems.
That’s why I made transit a top priority on day one. I didn’t waste time complaining, instead, I went right to work building a coalition of local organizations. Leaders from UWM, MPS and the business community joined me and Tom Barrett to successfully lobby the State to restore funding for transit. The funding was not as much as we hoped for but every dollar counts.
On top of the state money, I invested millions of local tax dollars to help reverse the trend of annual route cuts and fare increases and brought accountability back to the system. When I started, the private provider wasn’t doing enough to find solutions. I changed that by getting rid of the old contract and replacing it with a structure that is more accountable to taxpayers. This allowed us to identify savings that have been reinvested directly into transit service, while improving operations.
We made several enhancements to modernize the way buses operate with the goal of creating a better rider experience and attracting new riders, such as real-time bus tracking and the M•CARD. For years, ATU’s bus drivers warned of the dangers of paper tickets and pleaded with the County to transition away from this antiquated payment method. Just last month, we accomplished this and now we have a paperless system of payment – for the first time in Milwaukee’s transit history.
Because of these difficult decisions and investments we now start the annual budget asking where to invest, not where to cut. I have restored routes and held fares flat, all while giving our hard-working bus drivers a raise every year.
Our work isn’t done. We must continue to attract more riders and use our transit system to spur economic growth. We are implementing a job mapping program that uses technology to provide information about regional employment and job training opportunities, which will help drive investment decisions on where we connect residents to jobs.
We are working to develop a first-of-its-kind in the state bus rapid transit (BRT) system, where buses operate in reserved lanes with stoplights set to turn green as buses approach. The County is collaborating with state and federal partners on BRT, as well as the Regional Medical Center, Harley-Davidson, Miller-Coors and Marquette; these entities know the County is a partner that can get things done.
Milwaukee County needs someone who will stand up for transit not through words, but through actions. I am proud of my record championing public transportation, and excited about what is next to come for Milwaukee County Transit.
Chris Larson’s View
When the weather is nice enough, my three-year-old son, Atticus, and I take the bus to see my brother. For Atticus, it’s an exciting adventure. For me, it’s a chance to show him that our transit system is an essential piece of the economic health of our county that allows students to get to school, neighbors to get to work, and seniors to see their friends. We also have a pretty good time talking to the other riders.
Each of us benefits from a strong public transit system whether we use the bus daily, once a month, or maybe only during Summerfest, because our economy depends on it year-round. That’s why I support fully funding the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) and expanding routes, so more of our neighbors can reach jobs and we can look at finally lowering bus fares.
It’s impossible to mention our transit system and the current County Executive without noting the transit strike last summer. This happened after his failed push to shift management of our local system to an out-of-state, for-profit company. Later, when negotiations broke down, this executive led us into the first transit strike in 37 years. We in the public experienced this during the busiest days of Summerfest.
It’s true – we have seen some recent expansion in routes. But this is largely thanks to a lawsuit pursued by the Black Health Coalition of WI, MICAH, and the ACLU and a large federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant. Counting on luck is not a way to run a transit system – leaders must plan ahead or these expansions will soon be gone.
The best way to stabilize a rocky transit system is to do what nearly all other major systems in the country have already done: secure a dedicated funding source. A majority of Milwaukee County voters agree on this and, back in 2008, voted “yes” to a nonbinding referendum to secure a 1% sales tax for transit, parks, EMS, and property tax reduction. But this shared goal has not been achieved and, as a result, our transit system has continued to suffer.
Like our parks, it’s clear our transit system has fallen into disrepair. If we don’t take action soon, the effect could be disastrous for our economy. The nonpartisan Public Policy Forum agrees that new funding is essential in their analysis of the proposed 2016 budget, concluding “..at some point, a new local funding source will be needed.”
In short, our community needs dedicated funding to make recent expansion permanent and to start planning into the future so workers can get to jobs in every corner of Milwaukee.
I hope to see you on the bus soon, wherever you’re going.