Is Free Pass Bleeding County Transit?
Controversial free GO Pass for seniors and disabled costs millions, awaits new report.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 Dimitrijevic, Patricia 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.
More about the GO Pass Program
- 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