Graham Kilmer
Transportation

Summerfest Bus Service Canceled

Downtown shuttle and park and rides are canceled for 2021.

By - Jun 11th, 2021 05:19 pm
Long Lines at Summerfest's Opening. Photo by Alison Peterson.

Long Lines at Summerfest’s Opening. File photo by Alison Peterson.

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is canceling its bus service for Summerfest in 2021.

The MCTS Summerfest service included a downtown shuttle and Freeway Flyers that ran to and from park and rides in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties. In 2019, the most recent year Summerfest was held, there were nine park and rides serviced by MCTS. Other counties provide their own shuttle service.

For 2021, Summerfest organizers moved the festival from mid-summer to September allowing for more of the general public to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Urban Milwaukee obtained an email from multiple sources that was sent to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Friday informing them that the service would be canceled this year.

“We have been hit with a perfect storm of challenges that are magnified this year,” said Dan Boehm, MCTS managing director, in the email.

That is, the fall is a peak time in ridership for MCTS, the system has been underfunded for years and can’t spare the extra buses in the fall for the expensive service and personnel shortages make it difficult to staff the service.

“MCTS Operations personnel evaluated all aspects of the challenge for weeks only to conclude that it is a non-starter this year,” Boehm wrote in his email to supervisors.

This is not the first time this service has been identified for potential discontinuation. In 2019, facing a budget deficit, MCTS officials announced planned cuts to 16 routes the following year, including the festival lines. Most of these cuts were reversed when then-County Executive Chris Abele used $4.1 million in health care savings to cover some of the MCTS deficit.

While riders on the Summerfest service do pay fares, the service costs more to operate than it generates in fare revenue. The buses often run empty on their way out to the park and rides to go pick up passengers during the day, and run empty on their way back after dropping passengers off at night. In addition to drivers, the system also must pay for employees to marshal service in and out of the temporary lakefront terminal.

In his email, Boehm explained that MCTS usually has its lowest service levels in the summer, when Summerfest is traditionally held. With a switch to a September festival, buses that would normally service Summerfest are “already committed to work commuter services, and trips to schools and universities.”

Like many county services, the transit system has not received enough state funding to keep up with inflation. “The cost of maintaining old buses just for a once each year festival cannot be justified when every dollar counts,” Boehm told the supervisors.

MCTS has also struggled with recruiting and retaining bus operators during the pandemic. “Despite nearly non-stop hiring and training of new bus operators in the past 12 months, our bus operator count has declined to a five-year low; we went from 772 to 714,” Boehm said.

The managing director said that even with overtime pay it would be difficult to attract enough drivers to work the supplemental shifts.

“Ultimately, MCTS didn’t take this decision lightly,” Boehm said. “We recognize the importance of festivals to the Region, and in planning any service we always focus on Safety & Excellence as a priority.”

3 thoughts on “Transportation: Summerfest Bus Service Canceled”

  1. blurondo says:

    Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. should write a check to MCTS for this service.

  2. Andrew B says:

    Would It kill you to report actual financials for this since it’s the main reason they say they are discontinuing? How much does it cost? How much does it make in fares? What’s the actual amount of expense that indicates MCTS cancellation?

  3. 45 years in the City says:

    MCTS’ mission is providing regular daily service to customers within its service area.

    When Summerfest was (or perceived as) more of a “civic event”, the subsidy for operating the MCTS festival service perhaps made sense. Now that Summerfest is big business (and arrogantly ignores its municipal roots), it’s time for them to make arrangements and pay for substitute service.

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