Abele Faces Attack on Free Bus Rides
Though his challenger for county exec, Chris Larson, is undecided on issue, it could still impact the race.
Two days ago the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the new county bus program providing free rides for seniors and the disabled faces a budget shortfall. It wasn’t exactly a news flash: Urban Milwaukee writer Graham Kilmer reported this a month ago. Indeed, my colleague Jeramey Jannene did an in-depth story way back in November 2014 predicting the program was likely to create a shortfall of at least $1 million. But the Journal Sentinel continues to pretend we don’t exist and therefore didn’t credit us for first reporting the issue.
The Go Pass providing these free rides also looked like it could be a key issue in the race for Milwaukee County Executive between Chris and Chris: incumbent Chris Abele and his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson. In an interview with me not long after launching his campaign, Larson had blasted Abele on a long list of issues, including criticizing the county exec for being opposed to helping seniors and the disabled. But Larson has now clarified that is actually undecided, neither for nor against the Go Pass program. “I have heard concerns on both sides of the issue,” Larson says. “I will review the program when I take office.” That potentially puts Larson at odds with his old colleagues on the county board, who continue to blast Abele on the issue.
Back in November 2014, as Jannene reported, the county board slipped a last-minute amendment into the budget to provide free bus rides to seniors and those with disabilities. They already benefited from half-priced fares, but board members wanted to cut that to zero. As supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, who was then board chairwoman explains it, “my vision is clear: make transit as accessible and affordable to as many people as possible, especially those on a fixed income such as people with disabilities and seniors who also tend to have transportation challenges.”
The curious thing, however, is that free rides hadn’t been requested by groups representing seniors. In fact the county commission on aging wrote a letter opposing the idea, saying “seniors in our community have never asked for free, charitable bus service… Seniors in Milwaukee have many needs, but free bus service is not one of them…It is deeply disappointing that no one on the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging (and its committees and workgroups) was consulted about this proposal.”
Abele opposed the proposal, saying people needed to contact their county supervisor to have them vote against free transit rides. “We already have a discount program for seniors as we should,” he told Channel 58.
Even if Larson doesn’t attack Abele in the campaign on this issue, it seems clear that county board members will. As current county board chair Theo Lipscomb says, “Abele has plenty of highly paid advisors, their job is to paint him as a Democrat even while he opposes services for the elderly and disabled. ”
Abele says “my concern is sustainability because we now get less state aid for transit than we did five years ago. If the GO Pass continues to lose revenue, it will be much harder to keep this going. Our moral responsibility is first to the thousands of riders who use the system. I don’t want to risk being able to get people to work and to school every day.”
As Jannene reported in 2014, the county board had allocated $822,600 in funding for the GO Pass program in 2015, even though figures provided by the transit system 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 as much as $3.3 million.
The program began this past April, after the board overrode Abele’s veto of it. In late September we reported the program had 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. That put the GO Pass program with a budget shortfall of about $1.4 million with 15 weeks left in the year.
To which Dimitrijevic offers this riposte: “It’s tough to trust the administration’s numbers as they are adamantly against the program. This is why the County Board adopted a budget amendment at the Finance Committee requesting the independent body, SEWRPC to analyze the impact of the GO Pass.”
But why would you go all the way to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission for an analysis when you have an independently elected county comptroller who could do this? Perhaps because the comptroller looked at this when the board first proposed the free rides and projected a cost of $1.7 million.
The issue is a classic illustration of Abele the pragmatic budget cutter versus a board that has routinely added spending to his budget each year.
“If we balance our bus fare revenues on the backs of the disabled and seniors then our values are way off,” says Dimitrijevic.
“I want a bus program that’s sustainable, not just this year but every year,” counters Abele.
Meantime, it’s not clear what will happen to the program after the April election, no matter who is elected. Larson won’t say what he will do, but he is to the left of Abele on most issues and might be expected to support the Go Pass. As for Abele, if he is truly against the Go Pass, asks Dimitrijevic, why is funding for GO Pass program included in his budget? Abele’s budget, in fact, provides funding for the program through the 2016 year, but his last attempt to veto the Go Pass program was easily voted down by the board, so this may be a pragmatic decision.
Which means that whichever candidate wins election, we don’t know where they stand on the Go Program after 2016. Abele, it seems, would cut the program if he could. And Larson?
“I believe transit should be affordable and expanding and we need dedicated funding to do that,” he says. As a supervisor, Larson successfully championed a county referendum approving an increase in the county sales tax to provide more funding for the county’s parks and transit system, something the state legislature (then with divided control by both parties) declined to approve. If anything the current, Republican-controlled legislature would be even more likely to reject the idea.
Larson suggests Abele has been moving toward him on the issues: “From community schools to living wage, seems any position we stake, Abele is tripping over himself to also take.” But his decision to punt on the Go Pass program after first criticizing Abele seems like a shift as well.
It’s a potent issue — because it’s so easily understood by the electorate — and likely to pop again in the county exec campaign.
Clarification: The original version of this story cast this issue as a classic example of the differences between Larson and Abele, but Larson’s campaign soon made it clear that he was undecided on the Go Pass program, though he at first supported it in our interview in mid-October. Thus the story was recast as you see here.
The other candidate in the county executive election is Joseph Thomas Klein, the Wisconsin Pirate Party organizer. His position on the Go Pass program?
He notes that the Milwaukee County Transit System suffers from the fact that it has little support from the current majority in the state legislature. “MCTS is in need of a dedicated funding source, such as the before proposed additional sales tax,” he continues. “I would also like to see parking revenues from County-owned parking lots, street parking, and structures go into the transit budget. I would not be adverse to metering on Lincoln Memorial Drive (or in any park served by MCTS) if the revenue could make a summertime ‘Beach-Bus’ and Park service possible.”
“I like the GO Pass idea,” Klein says, “but perhaps it should have been better planned with a goal of minimizing erosion of fare-box revenue. The fact that the GO Pass has created a budget shortfall is more a function of poor planning and a lack of realistic budgeting by the County Board, than a condemnation of a program that should have innumerable social benefits.”