Graham Kilmer

County Free Bus-Ride Program Faces Shortfall

Free rides for seniors and disabled could cost $4 million, causing service cuts or fare hikes.

By - Sep 28th, 2015 12:59 pm
Milwaukee Country Transit System Bus

Milwaukee Country Transit System Bus

A new county program giving free bus rides to seniors and disabled passengers could leave the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) with a multi- million budget shortfall by the end of the year.

Introduced on March 31, the MCTS GO Pass program provides free bus rides to seniors aged 65 and up and passengers with disabilities. They had previously paid a reduced-fare price of $1.10 per ride. The free-ride program has no income restrictions and is open to all who qualify by providing a doctor’s note or government-issued picture ID card at MCTS headquarters.

To pay for these free rides, the Milwaukee County Board had allocated $822,600 in funding for the GO Pass program in 2015, but at the time figures provided by MCTS estimated that senior riders paid some $4.2 million (through the $1.10 fare) in the prior year, which would suggest the program could overrun its budget by more than $3.3 million. That figure, as MCTS noted, was not precise because no data was available on how many senior rides were on transfers (which were free) and how many seniors bought weekly or monthly passes which would change the amount they paid.

To date the program has provided over two million rides in its first 25 weeks. If all those riders had previously paid $1.10 per ride, that’s a loss of $2.2 million in ticket revenue since the program started. This puts the GO Pass program with a budget shortfall of about $1.4 million with 15 weeks left in the year and free ridership said to be increasing. As the figures in the graph below show, ridership for the free program started low, but has greatly increased through the year, as more users heard about and signed up for the program.

During the week starting August 31st, MCTS provided 121,000 rides to GO Pass users, the highest total seen so far. As of September 21st, 15,509 passes have been claimed.

The number of rides using Go Pass as of 9/21/15

GO Pass Ridership Through 9/21

Even with no further increase, if a 80,000 weekly average of free rides is sustained for the remaining 15 weeks in 2015, the GO Pass would provide another 1.2 million free rides by December 31st, with a potential loss of $1.3 million in ticket revenue (again depending on how many of these riders had previously paid $1.10 per ride.) This would bring the lost revenue total for the year to more than $3.5 million. If ridership stays at the level it did last week (119,000), the total lost revenue from the program for the rest of 2015 could total $1,963,500. This would bring the total estimated lost revenue from the program to about $4.16 million, leaving a shortfall of $3.34 million.

The total county transit budget for 2015 is $165.4 million. The GO Pass program shortfall could create a significant budget issue the county board would need to address. The problem could increase in 2016, when the program is in place for an entire year, and its lost revenue could rise even higher.

The program was originally created by an amendment to the 2015 Milwaukee County budget by sponsoring supervisors Marina DimitrijevicPatricia Jursik, Gerry Broderick, Theo Lipscomb, Jason Haas, Peggy Romo West and David Bowen.

In a November 18th veto message from County Executive Chris Abele to the board, Abele noted that MCTS’ preliminary analysis showed the plan could result in $3 million in lost revenue. “While well meaning, this proposal has not been subjected to the rigorous analysis of costs, benefits and alternatives, as well as public review, that should take place before such major – and costly – changes are made to the transit system,” Abele wrote. Despite the analysis from MCTS, the board went on to override Abele’s veto putting the program into effect in March with a budget of $822,600.

“After receiving the estimated financial costs from the Department of Transportation for the GO Pass, we allocated appropriate funding in the 2015 county budget,” said Dimitrijevic via email, who led the charge for the GO Pass program when she was board chairwoman. Dimitrijevic stated that she worked to implement the program because seniors generally live on a fixed income. The program received support from groups such as the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, a Madison-based non-profit organization, and the Make it Work Milwaukee Coalition.

Abele and his staff were surprised by the plan when it was first announced, because they had never heard requests for free rides. “No one has ever asked for free rides,” said Abele’s chief of staff Raisa Koltun, “We consulted with the Department on Aging, and they hadn’t heard any requests for it either.”

Members of the Milwaukee County Department on Aging echoed the statement that seniors in the community never requested free fares from the county, in a November 4th, 2015 letter to the Board. “It is deeply disappointing that no one on the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging (and its committees and workgroups) was consulted about this proposal,” wrote Viola Hawkins, the Chair of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging executive council, and Bob Haase, the Chair of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging Advocacy Committee.

The Abele administration is concerned about the program, said Koltun. It’s too early to tell what the revenue implications will be, she said. However, they are keeping in mind a similar program implemented in Chicago by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, which ended up costing taxpayers up to $116 million dollars a year before being repealed.

“It’s definitely being used more than initially expected,” Koltun said of the program. At the very least, that could have an impact on fuel costs for the buses. In theory, the cost for this program could be offset if the county transit system experienced a significant increase in paid riders, but data from MCTS to date suggests this is not happening.

When asked where the money for any program costs that exceed the originally budgeted $822,600 would come from, Koltun replied that she did not know. However, she added that if Abele was going to make an investment in the transit system, it would have been in expanding routes and decreasing travel time for passengers. Bill Zaferos, the Public Information Manager for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, said in an interview that he didn’t know “off hand” where the money for any GO Pass expenditures beyond what was budgeted would come from.

Urban Milwaukee will continue to monitor ridership levels and program funding. My colleague Jeramey Jannene first reported on the issue in November of 2014.


13 thoughts on “County Free Bus-Ride Program Faces Shortfall”

  1. AG says:

    Gosh, who could have seen this coming??

  2. Sam says:

    Seriously, this program should not have been implemented without the funding to make up the shortfall. What was the county board thinking?

  3. Eric S says:

    Agree, this is especially frustrating because of the earlier warnings. A program such as this should not be funded out of the transit budget. If it’s desired it should be funded in a manner that keeps transit’s budget whole.

  4. David Flowers says:

    eliminate a few tax loopholes the ten largest corporations bought for themselves. Plenty of revenue.

  5. Kay Voss says:

    This was too much of a giveaway from it’s inception. If the County Board believed the bus fare of $1.10 was a problem for senior citizens and disabled people, they could have considered reducing the price. Then they could have monitored the results rather than loosing millions of taxpayer dollars on a guess. Did they consider the increase in ridership because of this bargain? It doesn’t seem so and it probably happened. With the high prices of gasoline in the recent past, who would blame any senior or disabled person who had been driving or walking for not taking advantage of free bus fare?

  6. Brisls says:

    Does this give you an insite as to what’s in store for this city if Mayor Barrett gets his trolley? He proposes rides cost $1 first year ($3 subsidized), them rides raise to $4/ride. At what increased cost to Milwaukee’s taxpayers? Does he actually expect riders to pay a $3 increase for a short ride when the bus is still cheaper? It appears that this city needs new management who won’t be blindsided by the goofs this crew continues to make. ie: $20 million shortfall for pensions that Chicago accounting firm miscalculated for. $$$$ millions this city/county will be paying for the Bucks). The taxpayers can’t afford to live on dreams. It only has so much money available for any project.

  7. Eric S says:

    To the best of my knowledge, federal law requires transit agencies to offer 1/2 fares to seniors. Anything beyond that is completely up to the individual system or agency. In my opinion, such discounts should be funded as a social service, essentially with a social service agency (of the county or other level of government) purchasing fare cards from the transit agency. The transit agency itself should not be directly affected by budgetary problems with programs such as this. If the county fails to fully fund this program, then the social service agency would be unable to provide the fare cards, but the transit agency would not bear the burden.

    But none of this has anything to do with the city streetcar project or the Bucks arena.

  8. Rich says:

    Federal half fare only required if receiving “Section 5307 assistance”
    “Section 5307 assistance”
    Not sure if that is part of the 16% federal funding provided to MCTS:

  9. Beer Baron says:

    So angering that our phony pro-transit county board did this! All of them need to be held accountable! It’s despicable what they’re doing to our once proud bus system!

  10. AG says:

    This isn’t about pro/anti transit, it is not about federal rules on senior pricing, it’s not about the streetcar… all this is about is the fact that the county board is completely inept. How many times do we need to watch them make bad decision after bad decision or some vindictive maneuver to block the county exec just for the sake of blocking him or overstepping their authority in county departments, etc? I’ve never seen such a terrible governing body.

  11. Beer Baron says:

    This is about many things, but mainly that our leadership that is supposed to be progressive, is anything but. Bayview area leaders in the county, city and school board should be pushing the rebirth of the city to a whole new level with good, progressive policies, but all we have is Marina fighting to benefit herself, sell us down the river and then use her toadies to take on Anti-Abele cowtowing.

    We need to clean house on the county board and people like Marina, Jason and Theo need to be front and center of the clearing. We need real progressive leadership, not politicians!

  12. Mike K. says:

    You can’t calculate lost revenue by using the increased free ridership numbers. Many of these rides would not have occurred without the Go Pass program. Also the county should look at the increased economic spending by these seniors who now will be far more likely to get out of the house and spend a few dollars on lunch,coffee,shopping, entertainment etc.. Include the health and social benefits of increased activities by these now liberated otherwise reluctant budget conscious bus riders. This program is cost effective and deserves to be continued. We are not Chicago.

  13. Beer Baron says:

    Mike K, no one asked for the program, especially the senior groups who opposed it because they knew it was going to crush the transit system. However, When Abele tried to stop it, Marina did her faux populist ploy claiming that everyone was clamoring for it, then used the bloc of supervisors that owe her personally for their positions to make it happen. Why? To spite Abele. She doesn’t care it’s destroying the system. She never has. She never will. She only cares about Marina. Her and everyone associated with her little coalition needs to be heaved out of office for real progressive leadership. I for one am sick of seeing out city and county fall behind because she puts herself in front of others.

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