Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who Will Run the County Buses?

You need a scorecard to follow all the bizarre changes on this issue.

By - Nov 14th, 2013 10:15 am

There is never a dull moment at the county courthouse.

But even by the often-perplexing standards that pass for normal there, the handling of the county bus situation seems bizarre. The story as best I understand it, is this: Since 1975, the county bus system has been run by a non-profit, the Milwaukee Transit System (MTS). They won awards for their system from the American Public Transportation Association in 1987 and 1999. But in recent years there have been complaints from supervisors and bus drivers, particularly about the paper transfer system, which has led to thefts and violence on buses.

Supervisors had pushed for a change to paper-less transfer for some time, with Sup. Mark Borkowski complaining at a December 2012 transportation committee meeting that “some of us… have been on this committee a long time, and the tortoise-like pace at which we’re going is very frustrating.”

Add to this a problem with paratransit system (which provides rides for the disabled and elderly) that MTS oversees: it came under fire for its mismanagement of the county paratransit contract, which cost county taxpayers $8 million. “That was a loss of millions of dollars that didn’t need to happen and it’s the taxpayers’ money,” Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele complained.

Then add the fact that system’s funding and resulting service has been declining drastically. As Milwaukee Magazine has reported, buses on the street have dropped from 560 or so in 2001 to about 400 today, and service decreased 20 percent while fares increased 50 percent during that same period.

Much of this has been blamed on cuts by former County Executive Scott Walker, but the county board, which routinely overrode his vetoes, was not able to find any way to maintain the system’s funding.

In short, there were many reasons to revisit how transit was handled, and here was Abele, who styles himself as an efficiency expert. Given that the same group has been running the system for 38 years, why not bid it out and see what kind of deal the county can get, Abele figured. “MTS had been so tortoise-like on going to paper-less transfers, I’m not surprised the county exec tried to shake things up,” says Borkowski.

In July, Abele announced the results of the bidding process: the contract would be awarded to a private vendor, MV Transportation, based in Dallas. It certainly has expertise in the field. The company says it has 204 contracts operating 9,688 vehicles in 26 states, Washington D.C., Canada and Saudia Arabia. The contracts are divided pretty evenly between fixed-route buses for general passengers and specialized paratransit services.

Here’s where things got odd. Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic had not one word to say about Abele’s decision. Nor has any board member, save for Sup. John Weishan, who is generally willing to bash the county exec on any issue. Yet Dimitrijevic and the board made no move – pro or con — on the issue.

There were complaints from MTS, which lost the contract. On August 8, the group sued the county, challenging the decision.  Under the law, a county appeal committee hears the complaint, and Dimitrijevic was to decide whether the full board or a committee hears the complaint. She did nothing for three months.

By law the details of the MV contract cannot be disclosed until the MTS complaint is settled. By taking her time on the appeal, this left Abele twisting in the wind, as critics made all kinds of charges against the decision to award the contract to a private company.

Some charged that MV could cut the systems’ routes and fares, but that has always been decided by the county and would not change.

Led by the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus drivers, some charged that MV Transportation would cut wages and benefits. News clips show MV has been threatened with worker strikes in a number of cities, including Reno, New York and San Francisco. But that tells you their workers are unionized. The company says that 173 of its 204 contracts — or 85 percent — are with unionized employees. And company representatives have assured the workers they would honor the contract.

MV also had a poor record of service in Fairfield, Calif., where it racked up 295 fines from 2008-2010. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s worth noting this is just one of its 204 contracts.

Is there more to learn about the proposed contract with MV Transportation? Undoubtedly. So why doesn’t the county board move forward on the appeal so the details can be disclosed?

Abele’s office tells me that Dimitrijevic claimed there were legal obstacles to moving forward with the appeal. So on November 8, Abele wrote a memo to the board, saying, “I, like you, am frustrated that I have been unable to share with you the details of the MV contract due to the unexplained delay in scheduling and moving forward with the MTS appeal… I, therefore, ask the Chairwoman to schedule the appeal as soon as possible so we can provide the details of the contract for your consideration. Corporation Counsel has said it would be appropriate to hold the appeal.”

I checked with Corp Counsel Paul Bargren and he says he did indeed say the appeal could go forward. So I emailed Dimitrjevic asking what was the reason for long holdup, and doesn’t this make it impossible for anyone to learn the details of the MV contract?

Two hours later I got my answer, sort of. Bill Zaferos, public information officer for the board, sent me an email announcing that five county supervisors had just been appointed to serve as a committee to hear the appeal. As to why it has taken since August 8 to appoint this committee, Dimitrijevic offered no answer. Zaferos later offered me a statement from county supervisor Theo Lipscomb, who also offered no answer, but did charge that the bid process “may have been tainted in some way.”

Given that Lipscomb was one of five supervisors appointed to hear the MTS appeal, it seems inappropriate for him to prejudge the contract this way. For that matter, why was he answering my email to Dimitrijevic? Explained Zaferos, sort of: “He was most involved in the issue.”

Adding yet more strangeness to this strange affair was the board’s decision on Tuesday to shift operation of the county transit system to county workers, unless the board approves a contract with an outside vendor by April 1. Consider that the county has always retained ownership of the buses, buildings and equipment in the system and specifically made the deal with MTS in 1975 to have them handle the staff — the drivers, mechanics and administrative staff. The idea was that the county would save money on staff costs this way. Given current cost for benefits, wouldn’t this be an even bigger issue today?

Borkowski says he cringed when he heard this proposed. “We have a hard time maintaining what we do now. For us to take this on, I’m not sure how wise this is.”

Abele’s reasons for awarding the contract to MV have been explained. As to why the board is so opposed, it’s unclear. I’m guessing supervisors have a concern about the fate of union bus drivers, but they haven’t said so. It’s a legitimate issue in my book, but it would be nice to see some facts and information presented on this subject.

Of course the other reason for opposing this is precisely because Abele proposed it. The relationship between board and executive remains toxic, and Abele doesn’t help matters with such loftily pompous comments as these: “I wish our disagreements weren’t rather self-evident in their wrongness.” Paging Thurston Howell III.

Meantime, MV continues to work hard to get the Milwaukee contract. They have no idea what they are getting into.

Categories: Murphy's Law

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who Will Run the County Buses?”

  1. Concerned says:

    While it’s concerning the county chair seems to only be caring about her own personal gain as opposed to the good of MCTS or its riders (like me), it’s even more concerning about how she’s really handling this whole issue. County takeover seems like a good idea, but there’s nothing wrong with private companies running the show. It’s private now, nothing will really change under MV. Most in the U.S. are ran by private companies. If Marina is trying to protect the union, then why is she pushing to make them public? Wouldn’t they be subject to Act 10 and therefore bust them up?

    Walker hasn’t been the only enemy of MCTS. MTS has done a horrid job of running the show for some time. I get the cuts due to Walker, but where has MTS been in finding ways to attract new riders and grow revenues? A sales tax (which I and the majority of county voters have supported via referendum, but nixed by Walker) is a job of the politicians and lobbyists. MTS failed to hold up its part of the bargain and get so many more people on board with the system, which in part would create political pressure on people like Walker to force them to go along with funding and improvements.

    Where has MTS been on marketing, new fare collection, express buses, public outreach, etc? New things are coming next year, but where is the sales pitch to the public? Where is MTS applying for bus rapid transit funding? Where is MTS making plans to get the buses to match up with the coming streetcar? Where is MTS in getting more people to ride buses to big events like Brewers games, etc by offering deals in partnership with these venues (other systems do this), where is MTS in working with the cities and county in designing and implementing TOD and transit villages? Where are they in finding new sources of revenue? I could keep ranting.

    They’ve been nowhere with this. MV isn’t perfect. Heck, far from perfect is even fair to say, but they have been doing this across the country. They need new riders and revenues. If they fail, another will take their place so it’s in their benefit to create new revenues and new routes. I think we need to take the gamble with the devil we don’t know as opposed to the one we know. Otherwise we can kiss the system goodbye and Marina seems to be as big of an enemy to the system as Walker and MTS ever have been.

  2. Sam says:

    Bruce, I still don’t understand why you have such a problem with the county board. They’re elected officials who are representing the desires of their constituents. Just because they haven’t hopped onto the neo-liberal privatization bandwagon doesn’t make them bad stewards of the county. If your issue is with the progressive politics of the majority of the board then be honest and transparent about it. Don’t twist what’s actually happening to make them the root of all evil at the courthouse.

    As someone who’s been very active in organizing and lobbying on transit issues in Milwaukee for years, I think your critique that “was not able to find any way to maintain the system’s funding” is rediculous. Since Dimitrijevic came on as board chair, the board has consistently pushed the state for more funding, which Walker’s administration has refused. They successfully fought to keep public transit in the state transportation fund when Walker wanted to treat it like a welfare program, they’ve pushed for sales tax funding, and two years ago were on the verge of passing a county vehicle registration fee (the only new tax the state allows the county to pass) before Abele came out with his CMAQ funding gimmick which just pushes funding issues further down the road.

    The argument that this push to bring management in house is new or unusual is just as rediculous. The board has been pushing MTS to do a better job managing the system for years. Anyone who’s attended any county Transportation and Public Works Committee meetings has known for years that the county board has been frustrated with MTS’ noninnovative and sometimes downright inept management of the system. And they would also know that the drivers have been expressing dissatisfaction with MTS for years, too. The vast majority of medium and large transit systems in North America are run entirely publicly in house. It’s a model that works fine. As far as whether or not bringing MV in is a good idea, I don’t know. But if we’re going to bid out the system then we need to have an open process so that taxpayers and bus riders know what they’re buying.

  3. bruce murphy says:

    Sam, the efforts you cite to try to save transit are notable, and I’m glad you listed them, but still didn’t prevent the decline. And the complaints you note also reinforce the idea that the system needs to be improved. As to the need to have on open process, I could’t agree more, which is my concern about the board sitting on the appeal process, as that impedes transparency.

  4. Jeremy says:

    With antics like this, why do people wonder about the State legislature’s moves to restrict local control?

  5. CJ says:

    I miss Milwaukee and what was a very efficient bus system. I remember being able to catch a bus on almost any corner in the City every 10 minutes – you could set your watch by it…the funding issues seem rediculous to a very efficient system. The county should seriously consider a toll-way in the near future to help subsidize the county transit and the always-expanding interstate system. As sarcastic as this sounds, get the suburbanites who use the freeways – to pay tolls that could help fund ALL transit in Milwaukee County – freeway, and public transportation. Problem solved.

  6. Bill Sell says:

    Bruce, several errors of fact in your essay. I will take one for now:

    “Much of this has been blamed on cuts by former County Executive Scott Walker, but the county board, which routinely overrode his vetoes, was not able to find any way to maintain the system’s funding.”

    In fact it was the County Board that in 2008 led the campaign for dedicated funding, that swap taking the bus system off property taxes, and using half of a percent of sales tax to replace the funds. This approach would bring in millions of extra dollars each year from visitors and commuters from other counties. The failure lies at the hands of both political parties, both governors, who ignored the vote of the citizens of the County to fund the buses (and parks, by the way) in the manner that the County Board proposed.

    All the complaints about route cuts and fares point to this failure, as well as pressure on the property tax to be cut. These are not management issues; these are funding issues. All but one or two comparably sized cities no longer user property taxes for transit and their systems are growing with their cities, rather than being starved.

    We applaud when someone finds a way to cut a dollar out of property taxes. Where is the consistency when we refuse a substantial change in the property tax burden and then try to blame managers while tying their hands?

  7. Bruce Murphy says:

    Bill, as I noted earlier to Sam, it’s certainly true the board made efforts to gain more transit funding, but they did not succeed. And given a Republican controlled legislature, there is no hope of the sales tax increase for being approved. So the question is what can be done in the current context to get the bus system.

  8. Bill Sell says:

    “No hope” – a widely shared opinion, but perhaps a bit of an over-reach? The campaign for funding is state-wide. At least eight regions or cities are looking to a solution from Madison for (local) regional transit authority. Fox Valley may be close to it now (the fruit of a well run campaign appealing to local municipalities and their ties to Madison). And that will be a template to educate all of Wisconsin.

    Transit is bipartisan as it affects both customers and businesses and their workers. The campaign for dedicated funding is alive and well. Demographics (we are driving fewer auto miles) and money (transit is cheaper both to governments and to users than the use of the auto). Even rural areas that are served by shared taxi are part of this state-wide campaign.

    Reasonable people are hopeful that the Republican juggernaut will eventually pass from the scene with informed conservatives taking seats in Madison.

  9. Sonia says:

    The concern that a private transit management company would try and get rid of the unions, or alter their benefits is completely unfounded. I’m sure the transit union isn’t worried about it.

    Transit employees are protected by Section 13 (c) of Federal Transit Law, which has breathtakingly broad protections for employees of transit systems that receive Federal transit assistance. When you read Section 13 (c), it makes you realize just how strong the unions once were in 1964 when the Urban Mass Transit Assistance (UMTA) act was passed.

    Section 13(c) requires the continuation of collective bargaining rights, and protection of transit employees’ wages, working conditions, pension benefits, seniority, vacation, sick and personal leave, travel passes, and other conditions of employment. Section 13(c) requires the continuation of any collective bargaining rights that are in place, even if the entity that manages and/or operates the transit employees changes.

    Here’s a FAQ page on Section 13 (c):

    For a bit of history on how this piece of pro-union legislation was included in UMTA, you can read up here:

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