Jeramey Jannene
Eyes On Milwaukee

Is Free Pass Bleeding County Transit?

Controversial free GO Pass for seniors and disabled costs millions, awaits new report.

By - Mar 2nd, 2016 11:34 am
Milwaukee Country Transit System Bus

Milwaukee Country Transit System Bus

Milwaukee County’s free transit program for seniors and those with disabilities continues to provide thousands of free rides every week. Originally introduced as a last-minute budget amendment, the Growing Opportunities (GO) Pass started in April 2015 and kept growing steadily from there. At the end of 2015, the program had cost nearly three times its budgeted amount. Thankfully for taxpayers, a study of the program is coming this year.

Ignoring warnings from MCTS director Dan Boehm and the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging, the GO Pass program was hastily budgeted for a cost of $822,600 in 2015. Those warnings proved prescient when in November 2015, Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske issued a report that showed the program was going to cost an additional $1.8 million through the end of 2015 for a total cost of $2.6 million.

The 2016 budget, which was approved prior to the comptroller’s memo, includes $3.2 million for the program. That figure is likely to be low, as the program cost $2.6 million in 2015, started in March and didn’t reach current usage levels until the third quarter. Expect another shortfall.

The 2016 budget also includes the requirement to study the program, but no funding for the matter is included in the $163 million MCTS operating budget. County Executive Chris Abele originally included $100,000 for an outside study on the matter in his budget proposal. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors stripped that funding as part of a series of funding moves on mass transit, but retained the language calling for a report:

An analysis of the GO Pass program will be conducted in 2016 with participation from the Department of Administrative Services, the Department of Transportation, and the Comptroller’s Office, in cooperation with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) to better understand the revenue trends and impact of the GO Pass. A report on the findings will be presented to the County Board on or about the end of the 2nd quarter.”

In short, we’ll get only an internal report, since no funding exists for an outside entity to conduct the study, meaning the study stands a good chance of being caught in a he-said-she-said match between the board and executive. That of course assumes all of the incumbents win re-election, which February’s primary election showed to be far from a sure thing. Still, the report, likely to be released some time after the April election, should give a clearer picture of the program costs, areas for improvement and any abuses. A similar process in Illinois resulted in dramatic reductions being made in the number of free rides offered, which were projected to cost up to $90 million a year. Millions are still reported to be lost annually to fraud from the smaller free ride program that remains there.

Program Users

Who uses the GO Pass? It’s easy to picture grandma, but the data increasingly says otherwise. Despite an initial rash of pickups from seniors, most new passes are issued to those with qualifying disabilities. There are 8,768 passes in the hands of residents 65 and up, but 11,355 cards have been issued to those with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) defined qualifying disabilities. Both groups were previously eligible for a reduced cash fare of $1.10/ride versus $2.25/ride for the general public, as is required by the FTA.

GO Pass Rides Per Week. Note 2015 data starts on 14th week of year.

GO Pass Rides Per Week. Note 2015 data starts on 14th week of year.

Election Impact

Where do the candidates for Milwaukee County Executive stand on the matter? Abele has been against the program from the start, going as far to veto it. “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 in his veto message.

Chris Larson remains undecided, saying he would “like to see the actual numbers before deciding.” Larson went on to tell Urban Milwaukee “I like more of our neighbors on our buses.”

For more on the candidates views on transit, see our February Chris vs. Chris feature.

Program History

The program was introduced in late 2014 as part of the Milwaukee County budget process. I wrote a column when the measure was introduced entitled “Another Bad Transit Plan Introduced by County Board,” taking issue with the process by which the program was introduced and the potential for significant shortfalls. Boehm noted at the time that “this amendment is based on incomplete information” and two committees of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging voted unanimously against the measure.

The program was ultimately improved via 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. The measure was vetoed by the county executive, but was overridden by the board.

6 thoughts on “Eyes On Milwaukee: Is Free Pass Bleeding County Transit?”

  1. Steven Marshall says:

    I am curious about “loss estimates”. The buses go by everyday whether a GO pass rider gets on or not. How many rides would occur IF the persons had to pay? (And how do you know ?) For those who already have a discount, the loss would be $1.10 for every ride. I know from experience that when I have a weekly pass I get out for a lot more rides than I would otherwise. What less quantifiable benefits do the GO pass have: seniors getting out more(mental and physical health), seniors going to volunteer activities, seniors not needing help from younger working relatives, seniors continuing to work at jobs they no longer feel comfortable driving to, etc. What would be the relative merits of a 3 rides a week pass? How many Seniors (like me) don’t choose to obtain or use the pass? How many businesses benefit from increased senior mobility?

    By every accounting measure all transportation systems cost money way above their direct revenue: requiring infrastructure, regulation, insurance, environmental degradation and alleviation. Any transportation study should look for the most GOOD that we the people are willing to support.

    I think an experimental period is perfectly justified and its impact carefully reviewed.

  2. Tom D says:

    To calculate the real cost of GO Pass, some people just multiply the number of GO Pass rides by $1.10.

    This is wrong for three reasons:

    • As Steven Marshall said in Post 1, many of these rides costs the County nothing. The buses are already on the road and their drivers are already getting paid. The County only loses money for those few rides that would still be taken with a $1.10 fare in effect.

    • Even without GO Pass, some of those rides would still be free—via transfers. If somebody needs two buses for a one-way trip, they are counted as two passengers. This is true with GO Passes and paid trips.

    • Without GO Pass, more seniors will gravitate toward Transit Plus (paratransit) which costs much, much more than regular bus service.

    In 2013 (latest data), the total taxpayer operating subsidy averaged $2.13/ride for regular buses compared to $24.21 for Transit Plus. Even if the average regular bus rider transfers once (a $4.16 subsidy for the complete one-way trip), that’s still far cheaper than $24 on Transit Plus.

    And unlike regular buses (where additional riders cost nothing extra—because the buses were already operating, almost every added Transit Plus rider increases costs because almost every Transit Plus trip is specifically dispatched for that specific passenger.

  3. AG says:

    Tom D, even if your assumptions on how they calculate the cost to taxpayers is right, and we assume there’s no added cost for all these extra riders, and we assume they didn’t account for transfers, you still can’t account for Transit Plus. Transit Plus is only for people who are physically unable to ride a bus. Thus, this program wouldn’t be an option for them.

    Keeping that in mind, and figuring that only a little over half of those Go Pass users would have discounted passes, we can still give you the benefit of the doubt for discussion sake. So if we follow your logic, and this is only going to cost the county $2 million this year, is that ok? Even if it’s not $3.6 million, I still find $2 million a waste. What about 1.5? 1? I can think of a lot of things we could use that money for…

  4. Tom D says:

    Some senior citizens also have disabilities and qualify for both GO Pass and Transit Plus.

    I understand that this shouldn’t happen because Transit Plus is supposed to be only for people who absolutely cannot take regular buses, but there are some people with Transit Plus credentials who, on at least some days, could still handle a bus.

    If even 1% of today’s GO Pass rides shifted to Transit Plus, that would cost taxpayers over $1.2 million annually. (Assumptions: 5,000,000 annual GO Pass rides and $24 taxpayer subsidy per Transit Plus ride). This potential cost should be considered when calculating the cost of GO Pass.

  5. Bill Sell says:

    One of the huge MCTS successes in the past decade has been the New Freedom program. Many physically challenged who qualify for Transit Plus have found through personal coaching and problem solving that they physically were able to board a scheduled bus rather than call TP.

    These riders like the NF program because the price is right and they do indeed have the New Freedom to come and go on scheduled buses.

    This has saved the County millions of dollars (the stats are available) because the County does not pay that $24 per one way TP ride.

    New Freedom riders have been coached how to use the scheduled bus, and love the program now that they have been guided into it. These savings continue. “New Freedom” has earned the name; TP is not attractive; it costs the user about double the standard adult fare. It requires a 24 hour call-ahead, there are long waits on the day, there are long rides with the same van being used for the destinations that each rider needs; for several years MCTS has seen a reduction in TP usage. A net gain in the millions of dollars to our transit budget.

    County and the TP riders save. They do not pay the onerous $4 per ride; the county does not pay the $24 subsidy.

    Some physically challenged who do not qualify for TP may qualify for the GO Pass if they qualify under the FTA guidelines (doctor needs to verify the disability claimed).

    Anyone 65 or older is qualified with an ID.

    So, when looking at these budgets it is important to keep in mind that disability support has been a constant with MCTS, and MCTS has been creative to the extreme. The New Freedom program required MCTS to “lean” on social service agencies to use their budgets for transportation via County Transit, rather than rely on the property tax subsidy to transit.

    When the GO Pass was announced I suggested to the County Board to limit seniors to a sensible non-rush hour option. Free if you ride, say, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., or after 7 p.m., but seniors who ride during rush hour can be presumed to be going to a job and so their $1.10 fare would be still be a part of transit’s revenue stream; and no one denies this revenue is significant.

    There are several ways to tweak this program, but for starters distinguish between jobless seniors who need the program 100% and the rest of us who have jobs. Also distinguish among the physically challenged that there are levels of disability and levels of subsidy, some of which comes in from other social agencies not all of it comes from the property tax.

  6. David Flowers says:

    Calling publicly funded transportation for the disabled and elderly a “free pass” is insulting to community people of good conscience. To me this article sounds like a tax-dodger is trying to get a free pass.

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