Jeramey Jannene

$1 Bus Fares in Milwaukee – An Idea Worth Exploring

By - May 26th, 2010 07:50 am
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Milwaukee County Supervisor Mark Borkowski proposed lowering Milwaukee County Transit System fares to $1.00 from $2.25. Borowski, who has introduced the idea before, suggested it again in light of a budget shortfall of $10.2 million for MCTS next year. The idea is worth exploring given that MCTS has some of the highest fares in the nation, 90 new buses coming this summer, new fareboxes on the way, and failed to capture the ridership gains that other systems saw in 2008 when gasoline prices crossed $4 a gallon.

Making adjustments isn’t as risky as one would think, as with nearly all transit systems, fares make up only around 30% of MCTS’s revenue. In addition we have statistical analysis of MCTS fare and ridership data that shows there is a negative correlation between fares and ridership. This research indicates that any fare decrease is very likely to result in an increase in ridership, instead of simply decreasing the revenue the system has to work with.

There are a couple ways that MCTS could stage a trial of a lower fare.

  • Introduce a weekend fare – MCTS could offer a reduced rate for weekend riders. Weekends currently aren’t a high traffic period, and getting more individuals riding mass transit is only going to make it easier to get to festivals for drivers. Connected with promotions by local businesses (or even better, business districts), reduced weekend fares could encourage more people to come downtown on the weekends.
  • Create a weekend pass – Currently passes are sold on a week or month long basis, there is also a 10-pack of tickets available to ride at a reduced rate. There is however not a weekend only pass. In conjunction with VISIT Milwaukee, MCTS could offer up a $2 all you can ride pass for Friday evening until Sunday at midnight. This would be a great way to encourage tourists to use the transit system, and again it might be a great way to get more people to come downtown (or to the Third Ward and East Side where parking is perceived to be difficult) on the weekend.
  • Introduce a night-time rate – MCTS ridership is highest during the day, particularly during commute hours for the 9-5 crowd. To encourage more evening and night-time riders, MCTS could offer $1 rides after 7 p.m. Bonus side effects? It has a chance to reduce drunk driving and may encourage suburban residents to stay downtown longer, improving the local economy.
  • Have a 10-Pack Sale/Holiday – A 10-pack of fares currently is available for $17.50, a measurable discount off the cash-fare cost of $22.50. This fare is still not as discounted as buying a monthly or weekly pass is, however, the 10-pack of fares can be used whenever the rider chooses (and can be shared amongst a group). MCTS could offer up the fares for sale one-day (or weekend) only for $12.00. Taking a cue from the gift card industry, this would allow MCTS to not only profit from the interest on the cash-flow boost, but have a greater chance of the fare going unused.

The best way to ensure a long-term fare decrease is find a dedicated funding source for the system, something the proposed regional transit authority would have solved. To the credit of those at MCTS, in honor of the system’s 150th year of operation they have rolled out a number of days this year where fares are reduced or eliminated on certain routes or pass types.

Categories: Transportation

13 thoughts on “$1 Bus Fares in Milwaukee – An Idea Worth Exploring”

  1. cgleiss says:

    If Milwaukee is going to be serious about utilizing transit to its fullest extent, even if we are just stuck with buses for the current time, then fares and expectations have to be addressed. If we all had to come up with correct change everytime we jumped in our car, I think usage would be a bit different. A modest fair that is handy to come up with ($1 is a good start) represents someone buying into the transit system and increases mobility options for all of us. No one expects the street network or air travel to pay for itself, and it is about time the same expectation should be extendeded to transit. It is the overall benefit to the community, rather than the shortsighted ‘does it make money’ approach, that benefits all of Milwaukee. Just because there is a net cost for the service rather than a net windfall doesn’t mean the money isn’t being made up in other areas because of access to jobs and housing that the transit service provides.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @cgleiss Precisely.

  3. Joe Klein says:

    Filling the seats in off hours helps to maximize utilization. Day passes, off hour passes, weekend passes, all that makes sense, and variations are used in other cities. Pricing should be based on system loading or demand; so should the frequency and size of the buses. If demand is very high, you end up triggering the bus weakness, the need double up buses; effectively doubling your highest cost factor i.e. labor.

    A point exists when bus utilization and the increased maintenance and operating costs associated with, demand you look at streetcars because they are cheaper on highly utilized routes. see: http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/05/17/ottawa-closer-than-ever-to-replacing-bus-rapid-transit-with-light-rail/

    The County Executive and his cronies are somewhat ideologically impaired on that count, given they get transit advice from Cato institute fellows as apposed to real urban planners. It is best that we (Milwaukee County) never get near the point of needing any form of rail (by purposely handicapping the system) since, as the big oil funded Cato Institute fellow remind us, rail has high capital costs. Never mind that if the capital costs are properly amortized rail is probably cheaper than double-headed bus service. Best if Milwaukee dies then we improve the quality of life here.

  4. Bj Murray says:

    A single-ride fare on New York City’s MTA system is $2.50 (I believe – just moved back to MKE after about 10 years in Manhattan). Service should be relative to the cost… $2.25 a ride is outrageous!

  5. Ed Werstein says:

    Recently I was in Albuquerque for a conference. I don’t know how they finance their transportation system, but the bus rides were $1, single ride, and $2 for a day pass.
    The Railrunner Express train to Santa Fe was $8 Round Trip!

  6. That’s it, screw the taxpayers that already pay a huge subsidy for each ride, even more.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Patrick So we question if the government should essentially reduce a fee, and your against it? Interesting.

  8. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Patrick – Part of the plan was to reduce fares if it would increase ridership, thereby making up most, if not all, of the lost revenue.

  9. SS says:

    I actually …. agree with all your suggestions. Except, of course, the RTA tax.

    You took the idiotic statements from Borkowski, “Why not a little guerilla marketing?” and “Why not upset the apple cart?” and actually conceived reasonable ideas, something Borkowski is apparently unable to do. I guess he thinks he is a “big picture” guy.

    $1 rides on weekends would be great, its better than running those big buses empty. And as I’ve suggested before, creating some simple loop routes to connect 3rd ward, downtown, lakefront, and east side would make the bus an actual option for people driving to events downtown. As you said, these would be extremely useful during the summer festivals. MCTS could certainly work with business owners on the route to help them advertise to their customers, like handing out a business-card sized route maps.

    Cutting the fare across the board doesn’t make sense. But targeted fare cuts done right could actually generate revenue.

  10. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @SS – I’m going to be print this out as proof that we actually agreed on something. As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

  11. I concur that the best solution is the dedicated half-cent sales tax. I am not convinced of the need for an RTA. Milwaukee County can run a good transit system when it has the funding and is allowed to just run it the right way, instead of as a political tool. Furthermore, if they can ever agree to pass the KRM, they can still work with MCTS as it would with any other agency. There is no need for one more bureaucracy.

  12. CJ says:

    @cgleiss, well-said!

    Soon, Milwaukee will have better transit options for everyone – yes, everyone.

    The next few years will be a very exciting time for the City.

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