Graham Kilmer
Transportation

Increased Transit Funding Planned for 2021

But, if pre-pandemic ridership doesn't return, system is in financial trouble

By - Oct 15th, 2020 04:06 pm
MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented major challenges to the Milwaukee County Transit System, but the proposed 2021 budget would give the system a bump in funding.

The county is limited by the state on increases in its annual property tax levy, and the Legislature’s refusal to allow other local taxes, including a sales tax, to be levied. State aids have not kept up with inflation, or even risen at the same rate that the revenue the county sends to the state has risen. All this makes funding transit difficult, more so because it is one not mandated by the state.

But in 2021, under County Executive David Crowley’s proposed budget, the transit system would see its budget increase by $2.5 million over the 2020 budget. This would give the transit system a $162.5 million budget in 2021. And it is largely due to the infusion of funds from the federal CARES Act transit allocation the system received in the beginning of the pandemic.

The $54.9 million infusion put the transit system in the black for 2020, 2021 and, potentially even 2022. Before the pandemic, the transit system was projecting a budget gap of more than $12 million. The budget relief it provided allowed the transit system to maintain service and fees at the same levels as 2020.

Dan Boehm, MCTS managing director, told the County Board’s Finance Committee on Wednesday that the system is looking at using $20 million in CARES funds in 2020, another $20 million in 2021 and, if all works out, the remaining $14.9 million will be used in 2022.

However, despite these funds, Boehm said he is still worried about bridging the revenue gap in future budgets. “We do have a serious challenge right now.” Ridership is way down because of the pandemic, and with it, revenue. The transit system is projected to come in $10 to $15 million short on farebox revenue in 2020, compared to what they budgeted for a year ago, Boehm said.

And despite plummeting ridership, the transit system is still operating at full capacity. There are fewer riders, but with bus capacity limited to mitigate the spread of disease, there are still the same number of buses on the road as before the pandemic began.

Ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 is critical, Boehm said. Otherwise, the transit system will need more money or there will be service cuts.

New Bus Purchases

There is approximately $7 million in the proposed budget for 14 new “clean diesel” buses. If approved, these buses would likely arrive in 2022.

And while it’s not in the 2021 budget, Boehm told the committee that the system has a request for proposals out to manufacturers of Battery Electric Buses (BEB) that is coming due soon. The 2019 budget included funding for an initial four BEBs that will be part of an additional 11 BEBs intended to run on the East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. When the board approved this policy two years ago, it was touted as a first step towards the electrification of the entire MCTS fleet.

In 2019, Donna Brown-Martin, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation called the four buses a “pilot program” so MCTS can study the operations and efficiency of the technology.

After researching BEBs and looking at the experiences of other transit systems, Boehm said he expects Milwaukee will go through an early rough patch with its own. Other systems have had trouble with their reliability, he said. And in areas with seasons similar to Wisconsin, the batteries have proven fickle in both the heat and the cold. In fact, Boehm said it’s likely BEBs would need a diesel-powered auxiliary heater in the winter.

Sup. Jason Haas appeared to open the door for a policy change on BEBs when he asked if hybrid buses could be used on BRT. Boehm said they could. Haas then followed up, asking if it would be difficult for the county to change policy “midstream” on the buses for the BRT. Boehm answered neither affirmatively nor negatively, merely saying MCTS would work with the board, providing an necessary information “to facilitate a decision.”

So, the county’s gradual electrification of its fleet could be scuttled before it even begins.

Equity

Boehm said the transit system has taken seriously the goals of Milwaukee’s strategic plan to improve racial equity. He noted that in the past six months, 60% of the hires and promotions for managers and supervisory positions have been persons of color. And that 50% of those positions went to women. “I see that as a strong indication that we are doing better and will continue to do better in the area of hiring.”

East-West BRT

The long-planned $55 million BRT project, a 9-mile bus line running from downtown Milwaukee along Wisconsin Avenue out to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa, has been delayed several times, largely due to the federal government’s mishandling of a grant process that will provide the majority of funding for the project.

Boehm told the committee Wednesday they expect to be signing off on a grant agreement in December, which will give the system time to put out bids for construction work during the 2021 construction season. Based upon this timeline, the line is expected to be up and running sometime in 2022.

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