A regional transit authority with a dedicated funding source is the solution to the Milwaukee regional transit woes. The use of an authority represents the most efficient and reliable way to deliver a service to a region. A dedicated and reliable funding source is essential to empowering an authority to deliver the services for which it is tasked. While Milwaukee’s freeway system was designed and built to serve the region, the Milwaukee region’s multiple transit systems stop and start at invisible lines. The various transit systems have different fares, operating hours, vehicles, and branding. As they are now, the systems simply aren’t designed to work together to ensure a high quality of service to the region.
The end result of the patchwork quilt that is the Milwaukee region’s current transit systems is not pretty, nor productive. Constant budget battles for funding result in rising fares, reduced and or eliminated routes, varying service frequency, and antiquated equipment. At the same time, system operators are left without a budget to move riders across invisible lines that separate them from jobs.
The Milwaukee County Transit System is a prime example of the pitfalls of our current system of transit governance. In 2001, shortly before Scott Walker took office there was nearly $37 million available that Milwaukee County had received from the federal government for capital improvements to the transit system. Because the transit system, though a publicly-supported private company, is funded locally via property tax revenue it competes for funds against nearly all other county services. It is subject to yearly budget battles. The end result is a bitter fight between the Milwaukee County Board and the Milwaukee County Executive. This fight results in cuts and reductions in service across the board, not only for transit, but every service the county pays to provide. The federal funds earmarked for capital improvements (replacing old buses) have been used repeatedly for operating expenses to the point where they are nearly gone. The capital funds have been used to reduce the level of service cuts and reductions to the transit system, but at a great expense. A situation has been created where old and obsolete buses are being kept running well-past their expected lifetime. This has resulted in maintenance costs climbing at an ever increasing rate. Therefore, operating costs are now higher, and there isn’t money to pay for new buses to lower them.
What is a solution to this funding problem? A dedicated funding source deposited into a lock box account for a single use. A regional transit authority supported by a half-percent maximum sales tax varying by county service needs would accomplish this. A well-planned and budgeted sales tax could also create and support regional transportation initiatives that allow residents and visitors to easily move throughout the region. A move to a sales tax should not be viewed as a significant tax increase, instead using a sales tax should be seen as a logical tax transfer.
Sales taxes have a significant benefit to residents over property taxes, they’re paid by non-residents. Property taxes are paid by residents, either directly as a property owner-occupant or indirectly by renters as they are passed on by landlords. Sales taxes are paid by consumers. Consumers that come to the Milwaukee region for work or entertainment. This includes events at Miller Park and the Bradley Center frequented by out of region residents, and anything purchased at General Mitchell Airport by travelers. Furthermore, thanks in large part to Wisconsin’s progressive history, sales taxes are not levied upon unprepared food purchases at grocery stores. Using a sales tax creates a dependable revenue source to pay for existing transit service and new regional initiatives. A property to sales tax conversion would also allow a reduction to occur with property taxes, varying by the costs of the existing transit systems.
A regional transit authority with a dependable and dedicated funding source offers the best chance to move both the City of Milwaukee and the greater Milwaukee region forward. A dependable funding source will ensure reliable service that is largely free of yearly fare increases and route cuts. Furthermore, a regional transit authority will be able to operate similar to a utility provider, free to concentrate on providing one service, transit. This would be much unlike Milwaukee’s current systems which are political footballs subject to the whims of elected officials. Implementing a regional transit authority will provide the framework for future transit infrastructure improvements, including the potential use of the $91.5 million already allocated to Milwaukee by the federal government. A future with a regional transit authority is a future where people in the Milwaukee region can move within the region with ease utilizing a high quality transit system.