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.
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.
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.
- Final draft of amendment
- Letter from Commission on Aging to Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors
- Memo to Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and Department of Adminstration from Milwaukee County Transit System Managing Director
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Goodbye to MCTS Free Ride - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 26th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Fixes GO Pass - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 29th, 2017
- Murphy’s Law: How to Destroy a Transit System - Bruce Murphy - May 24th, 2016
- Eyes On Milwaukee: Is Free Pass Bleeding County Transit? - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 2nd, 2016
- County Free Bus-Ride Program Faces Shortfall - Graham Kilmer - Sep 28th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Another Bad Transit Plan By County Board - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 6th, 2014
Read more about GO Pass Program here