Patti Wenzel

Is this really the future of bus transit?

By - Jun 11th, 2010 04:00 am
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The Milwaukee County Transit System is celebrating it’s 150th birthday this month, but the future for the buses looks bleak.

MCTS Acting Director Anita Gulotta-Connelly told county officials there would be a $10.2 million shortfall in 2011 if services remain at the levels currently in place. A combination of reduced ridership, the loss of Milwaukee Public Schools student ridership and a reduction in state and federal aid have dropped estimated revenue levels. She suggested a number of solutions to close the gap — cutting services, increasing fares, reducing paratransit services, finding internal savings or receiving more dollars from the county.

photo by agit-prop, via flickr.com (CC License)

The last solution is off the table, according to County Executive Scott Walker’s Chief of Staff, Tom Naradelli. “There will be no tax increases.”

Walker has previously said that he does not want to see cuts to paratransit, which provides services to the elderly and handicapped. MCTS provides services well beyond the federal requirements, but cutting to the minimum required would eliminate services to 1,500 riders. The savings from paratransit cuts could total $1.8 million, the expected  reduction in federal aid for the program.

Jackie Janz, an MCTS spokeswoman, said they have cut to the bone and that there is “no more fat left.”  The company’s unions recently agreed to a pay freeze and to contribute more toward their own health premiums to reduce costs and save their jobs.

photo by Jezz, via flickr.com (CC License)

If not for a combination of $58.4 million in federal stimulus funds and county bonding the purchase of 125 new buses, new fare boxes, a new annunciator system and a replacement roof on the Fond du Lac Avenue administration building would not have been possible this year. Those funds will not be available in the future.

Walker has said he would consider fare increases, but according to a formula used by MCTS, a 1 percent increase in fares would lead to a .3 percent decrease in ridership. For example, raising the fare from $2.25 to $2.50 (an 11 percent increase) could lead to the loss of 1.3 million riders. That doesn’t sound like a way to encourage more bus usage.

With all the options being bad ones, Gulotta-Connelly said the system needs a dedicated source of revenue to keep buses on the streets of Milwaukee. There is a source available, as county residents voted in 2008 for a sales tax to support transit. But Gov. Jim Doyle refused to allow it because he wants a regional transportation system in Southeastern Wisconsin.

It’s a noble idea to want high-speed trains, light rail, streetcars and buses to provide transportation between major metropolitan areas, suburbs and neighborhoods. And there are many people who believe that the bus system will rebound as soon as the trains and streetcars are in place. They argue that people will use the streetcar to get around downtown Milwaukee after they use an MCTS express bus to get to the center of the city. Once the trains are in place and people are using them the bus service will benefit by increased tourist and commuter use. How or why that will happen has never been fully explained by the train proponents.

But time is running out for MCTS. It needs an infusion of cash to maintain and expand bus routes and service times now, or there won’t be a bus service in place for all those train riders and streetcar commuters to use. We need all of the $91.5 million in federal transit funds held between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to be directed to the saving of MCTS. We need to stop chasing dollars to replace trains we ripped out 50 years ago and find the dollars for buses.

We need to encourage people to actually ride the buses  and we need to make them affordable and convenient. We can’t wait another four or five years for the approvals, preliminary engineering and construction of the Milwaukee Streetcar. We can’t wait for the hip and cool people to get off a train in search of a bus, because by then the buses will be gone.

The bus routes that remain are by no means perfect. They do not reach all of the available jobs in Milwaukee County and there have been cutbacks in routes that run to neighboring counties. And due to crippling budget cuts, they are less frequent.

More than 85% of all Milwaukee County residents are within walking distance of a regularly scheduled bus route. You can still get on a bus at Southridge and get to Bayshore, albeit with a few transfers, or hop on the Freeway Flyer in Menomonee Falls and arrive downtown without frazzling your nerves.

We can’t waste the resource we currently have that provides commuting options and transportation to the poor, elderly or handicapped. We need to focus on what we can still afford to save, not on what we want and cannot pay for. We need to lobby for and support MCTS.

0 thoughts on “Is this really the future of bus transit?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Milwaukee County Bus System is Scott Walker’s problem. The Streetcar system is Barrett’s idea.
    “We can have this after we get that” is not the solution. Walker got bailed out by the “Stim” funds he didn’t want. He dosen’t care about transit. If he did he’d have a solution.
    You correctly pointed out that increasing fares is not the way out of this mess. Of all of the naysayers out there none of them have a solution except more cars.
    Go to goggle maps and look down on the city of Milwaukee in the satellite view. Look at the land dedicated to automobiles. Figure out the cost of land use as compared to the loss of tax revenue. When we quit subsidizing cars we will see he true value of mass transit.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for all the links.

    You skipped a few steps in the Doyle-Legislative analysis. Doyle actually proposed a regional sales tax to support the KRM and mass transit (they’re all part of the same larger system). Then the Legislature hacked that proposal up into Milwaukee County having a 1% tax instead of 0.5%, and they could spend it on virtually anything they wanted. Doyle vetoed the mess of the plan in hopes they could pass a good, regional bill in a regular floor session (outside of the budget process).

    That failed largely as a byproduct of an extremely ineffective Milwaukee legislator and a Governor that became a lame-duck mid-process.

    And I’ll say it again, as I’ve said before, you don’t want to stop planning for the future (HSR, streetcar, KRM) just because things aren’t in order now. Different pots of money managed by different people.

  3. Anonymous says:

    How about some intergovermental cooperation? Yes, MCTS is a quasi-county organization, and the streetcar is Barrett’s issue of the moment. But MCTS benefits the city immensely, providing transportation services to those without cars, many of whom live in the City of Milwaukee. Maybe the best solution is to get rid of both of these guys and find two leaders, not politicians, who can work together on saving the city and county.

    BTW, it’s not just Milwaukee with land dedicated to automobiles. Look at the country as a whole. It’s the American dream to move about unrestricted, something that is best done right now in cars.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hey, I always like to give the other side some love. That’s what makes America great – a free exchange of ideas and respect for them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I opted out of a car a few years ago based on the fact that I live a few miles, straight shot from work on the bus. I figured that I’d save time, drama and car worries, especially when the gas prices were so VERY high.
    However– With fare increases and less frequent buses, I find myself debating whether or not I made the right choice. I don’t want to stop riding the bus– it’s truly convenient for me, but I wonder if it’s something I can continue. My time is valuable to me, and to sit, waiting an extra 20 minutes on a stop is pretty frustrating.
    Have they discussed or taken into consideration the revenue saved when they switch to non-paper transfers? And I know that when they switch to the new fare system, a fair amount of fraud loss will be stopped. I see so many people hustling for transfers on a daily basis, and even using intimidation as people exit the bus just so they can get a free ride. I can only imagine the money they’d make up there.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Cars burn foreign petroleum. America’s 20-million-barrel-per-day oil habit threatens our economy, national security and environment. Consumption will soon rise to 28.3 million barrels of oil a day, with 70 percent of it imported. This makes America increasingly dependent on some of the least stable, undemocratic countries in the world. 40 percent is used by passenger vehicles. The U.S. passenger vehicle fleet alone accounts for one-tenth of world petroleum consumption. Worse, fuel economy of the car/light truck fleet peaked in 1987 and has essentially been declining since then due to outdated standards and increased sales of fuel-wasting SUVs and other light trucks. Clean electricity that powers all streetcars and many trains is generated here in America by ever-more-green methods of production. That should be our goal – clean, efficient and reliable electric trains and vehicles.

  7. Anonymous says:

    For years I got around fine without a car, because MCTS was a good system with frequent service all over the county. This was a choice, not necessity. My transportation costs, including bus passes, cabs, occasional rentals and Amtrak trips, ran about $1,500 a year – and I didn’t have to shovel snow, pollute, pay parking tickets or deal with the daily aggravations of car ownership. Then Scott Walker was elected. He called transit a form of welfare – meaning it should be destroyed. He “failed” every opportunity to bring in state, federal and private transit funding. He cut weekend service and “feeder” routes that boosted ridership on main routes, and reduced the frequency on main lines so that a bus trip became an all-day expedition. More recently, he did everything possible to deep-six bike racks on buses, including keeping them out of the current Transit Guide. He succeeded in wrecking MCTS to the point that I eventually had to get a car, quit my job, or spend all my money on cabs, because I couldn’t get where I needed by bus.

    Scott Walker hates public transit; he has made this clear and indisputable many times. It’s hard to imagine why, except that poorly-educated, intellectually lazy people like Walker are the most susceptible to bigotry and simple-minded, semi-magical ideas.

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