We Need Better Transit!
Suburban officials and business leaders at Downtown conference on transit call for better connections to the city.
“Brave words, but will they have much impact?” That’s how Bruce Murphy concluded an Urban Milwaukee story last December about a Public Policy Forum study of Milwaukee’s transit shortcomings.
On Wednesday, February 5th, members of the business community were briefed on the study at a University Club breakfast organized by the Greater Milwaukee Committee. If you’re looking for impact, that is not a bad place or group for finding it.
Forum President Rob Henken outlined the bullet points of the study, entitled, “Getting to Work: Opportunities and obstacles to improving transit service to suburban Milwaukee job hubs.”
- We face a “spatial mismatch” between where jobs are and where workers live.
- Thirteen per cent of workers in the City of Milwaukee do not have cars.
- Today’s job centers are not served by transit.
- Budget cuts have forced a 22 percent decline in annual bus miles.
So now what? The long term solution is easy. “An ideal solution would be to encourage job growth in areas that already are well-served by transit,” such as urban Milwaukee, the study notes. We’ve been saying that for years.
Attendees were briefed on the report’s recommendations, including the establishment of a few strategic express bus lines to connect workers to jobs. Then a panel discussion brought some real world perspective to our transportation plight.
Brian Dranzik of the Milwaukee County Transit System gave some perspective on the operational side of the ledger. He must deal with calculations of route productivity (22 passengers per bus hour is the standard). His revenue sources come from many places, with the farebox being just one component. If the county would like to expand bus service across its lines to, say, Waukesha County, he has no choice but to force Waukesha to pay for the expansion.
This hardly puts the transit system in a good negotiating posture if the purpose of the expansion is to primarily benefit Milwaukee County residents who need to get to a job. Dranzik used to be able to rely on Job Access Reverse Commuter funding from the federal government for this, but that program was repealed last year.
The 143 bus route that operates in Ozaukee County primarily serves the MATC North campus; it flies up the freeway for several miles in Mequon, bypassing thousands of jobs on N. Port Washington Road. The route is determined by Ozaukee County; MCTS just contracts to operate it.
Oh, and while we’re at it, the new farebox-paperless transfer system now being installed in all MCTS buses will not be compatible with the system used by the Waukesha County Transit System buses. Is this any way to run a transit system?
You’d think after a quarter century or more of talking about it, we might get around to creating a regional transportation authority of some sort, Henken suggested.
Panelist Steve Scaffidi, mayor of Oak Creek, was quick to respond, saying, “You put ‘Authority’ on the back of anything around here, you will have opposition.” The population of his city has gone from 20,000 to 35,000 since 1990 and is considered 99 percent urban, but you’d never know it from its transit status.
“There is resistance in suburbs to expanding bus service,” Scaffidi said. “There are reasons I don’t need to tell you and I don’t believe in.” Scaffidi said his town is growing with such development as the Drexel Town Square, some 600 apartments by Rick Barrett and Matt Rinka, a medical facility, retail, and a Four Points by Sheraton Hotel. “I don’t have 1,000 parking spaces for workers just to sit there all day,” he said, adding that the elderly need transit.
“It’s silly to build a new downtown if your residents can’t get there.”
David Karst of MRA, an employers group, said his perspective is that “people in the city of Milwaukee want to work. Take down the obstacles.” He formerly worked for Buy Seasons, when that company hoped to build a distribution center in the Menomonee Valley, close to worker and transit. The plan was derailed by the opposition of Ald. Bob Donovan, and the above-minimum wage jobs went to New Berlin, where the company hires private buses to transport some 400 workers to their jobs.
Another perspective came from Lou Ann Koval, the General Counsel and VP of Human Resources at HB Performance Systems in Mequon. The firm, formerly Hayes Brake, is located in an industrial park at 5800 W. Donges Bay Rd. It is one of scores of industrial buildings clustered there in a converted cornfield, inaccessible to public transportation, despite being an employment hub for perhaps 1,000 workers. It is the poster child for “job centers without access to transit,” one of the study’s bullet points.
Koval said she has turned down carless job applicants for “humanitarian reasons” since their commute, capped by a two-mile walk to the nearest bus stop, would take better than half of a workday. She says she tries to find these people jobs in the city, or near transit. Hayes Brake, and many other suburban manufacturers, relied for years on local talent for the workforce.
“We used to hire the farmers’ kids,” she said. “Now we hire from the unemployed people of the city of Milwaukee.” The farmers’ kids have disappeared, and the farmers themselves have retired to Florida on the proceeds of the farms they sold to developers who built the mansions that surround the inaccessible industrial parks. And thus the cycle continues. How will she get workers for the jobs in her plant? “We may have to partner and do shift-sharing” with neighboring plants, she suggested. This is another suggestion of the study: that it may be possible to effectively serve target areas — provided the work shifts start and end at the same time. These are simple things that could make an otherwise disconnected location a viable transit spot.
It apparently is up to the GMC members to figure this out one bus stop at a time.
Mayor Scaffidi said that he has never lived in the city, but said he “loves the city of Milwaukee, and transit is part of it.” He said he hasn’t taken a bus here for “25 years,” but observes transit systems in his travels and sees a big difference — one that is holding back development here: “Here, we have never made a commitment that people can get to work without their cars.”
In response to a question asking “Who should be the voice” of the call for effective transit, Scaffidi suggested the 19 mayors and village presidents of Milwaukee County municipalities might be a good choice. However, that still keeps Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties out of the loop, and not a word was said about Racine County.
“We lack rapid transit,” said Henken. And then, as he noted quickly thereafter — “Rapid transit does not have to be rail,” — a tacit admission that this hot-button issue (for AM Talk Radio hosts) still controls the public agenda on transit.
As Mayor Scaffidi concluded, “There needs to be some bravery on the part of elected officials that we don’t have now.”
With that, the attendees headed to their automobiles to spread the gospel of transit, with Manpower CEO Jeff Joerres offering this parting thought: “Think of the people you see out at the bus stop as you drive by.”
At the Event
Among the attendees were Greg Marcus, CEO of the Marcus Corporation, operator of hotels and theaters, some with excellent transit, others abysmal. John Daniels, the head of the GMC offered introductory remarks. He has been squiring Rob Henken to so many events lately they have become a veritable team, he joked. David Crowley was there with his boss, Sen. Nikiya Harris. Kerry Thomas, Transit Now Executive Director, stopped by to follow the proceedings. Arthur Smith attended as did “Downtown” Dan McCarthy, Frank Gimbel and George Gerharz. Dr. Hermann Viets, president of MSOE, said he figured part of the problem with transit is that the funding comes from too high up in the government, rather than locally, where we could have some control. Jeff Joerres, whose company deals with worker transit issues on a global basis, exuded optimism, promising more results from the meeting are to come.
Photos from the Event