Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Another Bad Transit Plan By County Board

Amendment slipped into budget has had no public review and could leave system $1 million short (or worse) by end of 2015.

By - Nov 6th, 2014 12:46 pm

Another year, another weird, last-minute transit amendment to the Milwaukee County budget.

Two years ago, a few supervisors introduced, then wisely pulled, a proposal that would have raised fares on a number of riders by eliminating transfers. This year, an amendment sponsored by Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and supervisors David Bowen, Jason Haas, Patricia Jursik, Gerry Broderick, Theo Lipscomb, and Peggy Romo West would eliminate the current, half-priced fares to seniors and persons with disabilities, discount fares for summer jobs program participants, as well as extending Route 80 and creating a new one, Route 276. Under the estimate from the Comptroller’s Office, the amendment would cost $1,582,000, but the Milwaukee County Transit System itself estimates that it could cost almost twice that.

There is no question the County Board has good intentions in proposing the new service and reduced fares, as the amendment would almost certainly increase ridership. But planning for the new service and reduced fares appears to be dangerously absent. Documents indicate a number of key parties were not consulted on the matter, including the Milwaukee County Transit System and the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging, who have raised serious concerns about cost estimates and the track record for similar programs in other cities. Instead of following the normal legislative process and introducing the proposal before the Milwaukee County Transportation, Public Works and Transit committee for a public hearing, it was slipped into the budget less than two weeks before the whole budget is to be approved by the full County Board. Even if it’s a good proposal, this is a reckless way to operate.

The cost is certainly the biggest question raised by the proposal. The free rides to seniors (65+) and persons with disabilities (dubbed Growing Opportunities or the GO Pass) would cost $822,600, the Summer Youths Job Fare would cost $100,000 and the new or extended routes would cost an estimated $660,000. The entire package would cost $1,582,000 annually, expanding the total MCTS budget to nearly $150 million, according to the Comptroller’s estimate, but MCTS pegs the cost at nearly double that, which would increase its total budget by about $3 million.

Of the proposed changes, the GO Pass is the most problematic, both because it has the greatest estimated cost, and because, once created, it will be very difficult politically to put the genie back in the bottle and make seniors pay for their fares again. By contrast, the summer jobs program is described as a pilot and has a relatively low cost and the new routes could be canceled some day.

In a response from Milwaukee County Transit System managing director Dan Boehm, he called into question the Comptroller estimate, saying  “the tax levy increase suggested as sufficient for this amendment is based on incomplete information.” He goes on to estimate that the new programs and routes could cost the cash-strapped system as much as $3,010,000 (with a high estimate of $2,250,000 just for the free riders). Boehm’s memo details how a similar program in Chicago was plagued with fraud, and eventually revised to include income restrictions so that only low-income senior citizens could get the free rides (but unfortunately not before fares had to be raised for all riders).

While it’s unclear how the Comptroller came to their estimates, the memo from MCTS lays out some considerations:

“A recent Customer Study by MCTS indicated that nearly 11% of passengers are older adults. Last year passenger revenue totaled about $42 Million; therefore up to $4.2 Million could be attributed to seniors; however, these passengers are eligible to pay a half-fare as such [so] a more reasonable estimate of the revenue ‘floor’ would be $2.1 Million. Obviously, this method is also flawed because it too fails to quantify the numbers of weekly passes and monthly passes purchased by seniors and persons with disabilities;  hence, the actual passenger revenue loss could be more on the order of $3 Million annually. The point is that it is difficult to estimate potential revenue loss with current transit data. Actual and relevant data would be available in 2015 after full replacement of paper passes with MCTS M-CARD passes.”

He goes on to note the danger of the estimate…

“A study of a similar program in Illinois suggested a range of the revenue loss for that program too, and ultimately found the program to be financially unsustainable… MCTS could suffer a loss of revenue of $1.09 million to $3 million annually. An April 1st start date would decrease the projected annual revenue loss, but a real risk remains that MCTS could end 2015 over $1 million short in revenue if the amendment prevails.”

Further underlining the oddity of this proposal is that seniors are speaking out against it. The Milwaukee County Commission on Aging wrote a letter to the chairwoman expressing their disappointment at not being consulted on the matter, and noting that two of the committees the group oversees actually voted unanimously in opposition:

“It is deeply disappointing that no one on the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging (and its committees and workgroups) was consulted about this proposal. As you know from your many years of service on our Commission, our members are appointed by the County Executive and approved by you and your colleagues to be the voice of older adults in Milwaukee county. This proposal would impact the 109,133 seniors 65+ in Milwaukee County, and the fact that no one consulted with us at any point shows disrespect for the Commission on Aging and the legislative process in general.” Full letter

William Sell, former chair of the County Board’s own Transit Services Advisory Commission (on which I also serve) wrote a letter to the County Board opposing the amendment:

“As a senior I am not asking for free rides on our bus system, and wonder if, in the long run, it is the kind of message we want to send to transit critics, who may say: ‘Hey, if you’re flush with cash, why are you asking the State for more funds?’

In fact the memorandum reports already a reduction in passenger farebox revenue. To reverse that will take a bit of thought, planning, and (likely) fare reductions across the board. Why not avoid criticism by using the $1-2? million to help improve transit across the board.”

Similar proposals, like the new 10X, 27X, and 30X service funded by a federal grant, and the new service funded by the Zoo Interchange settlement, are going through months of planning and public review. Those proposals have given the public the chance to ask chances, for community groups to weigh in, and most importantly, for the opportunity costs to be weighed. If more money is to be spent on a cash-strapped system, Milwaukee County should be spending it on the things that produce the greatest benefit, and the normal legislative process gives the proper opportunity for that to be debated.

This proposal deserves a full public vetting outside of the budget. It’s no small concern that the measure was inserted into the budget on October 29th, but had never been discussed publicly before that. It was apparently so secret that MCTS Director Dan Boehm had not seen it until that day, nor had the Commission on Aging. The County Board would be wise to strike this from the budget on November 10th when they review it.


8 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Another Bad Transit Plan By County Board”

  1. Beer Baron says:

    Yet why is there no talk about major changes to the transit system??? Why are they not calling for more ways to lure choice riders or speed up routes? It makes me really angry the transit system is direct county control. I wish it could be spun off into its own thing with appointed board members who can worry about one thing: transit and how to increase riders.

    Investing in the system means more riders. More riders means more revenues. More revenues means more services. More services means more economic development and lower infrastructure needs. Lower needs means lower taxes. Lower taxes means more political support from the incredibly hostile state government that has been clear it will eliminate any and all transit services right now. If we shove success in their face and flap dollar signs at them, it may change their tune.

    Call me petty, but I really want to see MCTS get serious and push rapid transit and TOD as part of its plan and shove the success in Robin Vos’s stupid face! I’m pretty sure all of Milwaukee County can get behind that!

  2. Sam says:

    The new Metro Express routes are hardly going through months of planning and public review. There were two poorly advertised and attended public input sessions on the changes which were more or less already finalised and the info about the new routes wasn’t put online until after the sessions. The same thing happened with with the first three Metro Express routes. I think we need to hold everyone to the same standard if we’re going to criticise the board for this…

  3. Michael says:

    The county board continues to demonstrate their incompetence. The letters from the MCTS and the committee on aging are particularly embarrassing.

  4. Ed Werstein says:

    I’m a senior who doesn’t mind paying the current fare. I agree with what Bill Sell said in his comments.
    This is a bad proposal.

  5. Beer Baron says:

    Going on my earlier rant, I hate to sound like a republican, but transit is a business (albeit a government subsidized one), but it needs to allowed to run like a business. Get the county board out of the process and MCTS make decisions that any business looking to attract customers would do.

    Jeramey, you’re on the board, what does this take? Can you request MCTS look at potential ridership increases on investments to make transit more appealing and competitive with cars vs just giving seniors free rides they never asked for? I hate this term, but I got to imagine there’s more bang for the buck in investing in a system overhaul to attract all choice riders in the county than just giving away free rides to a select few.

  6. Bruce Thompson says:

    The present county board seems intent on confirming the worst fears of their critics. I would rather see resources going into more frequent service. In any case, it is mind-boggling that this passes without an adequate study.

  7. JT says:

    I’m about as big a transit advocate as it’s possible to be, and I agree that this is a terrible idea and a terrible process. Need we remind ourselves that transit is transportation? What we’re trying to build is sustainable infrastructure.

  8. Bill Sell says:

    Thanks, Jeramey.

    I note that Transit Services Advisory Committee was also not consulted on this change. One week after Jeff Jordan our new chair presented his vision at the TPWT Committee hearing – “I’m tired of playing defense…”

    I would add one other point I included in my letter to all the supervisors.

    Seniors who work are not looking for a break in their $1.10 fare. Seniors who are retired who can ride anytime do not need a 24/7 fare break. And rush hour buses are packed.

    If seniors use rush hour buses, and inconvenience the fare-paying because of slower service, and drive the riders-by-choice back to their cars, what will we have but more unwelcome reductions in the farebox? If seniors must ride free, use a means test, and limit their free rides to nonpeak hours.

    In any event, this issue should be widely studied and not popped out at the last minute. It smells like sop to Assemblyman Robin Vos who believes transit is a social service; why give him red meat? In the words of Beer Baron: “…I really want to see MCTS get serious and push rapid transit and TOD as part of its plan…” For that we need strategy, thought, planning and lobbying, but please not this transparent opportunism.

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