Graham Kilmer

Freeway Flyer Buses Suspended Indefinitely

County transit system announces suspension will continue, with no date for their return.

By - Mar 2nd, 2022 05:32 pm
MCTS Bus. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

MCTS Bus. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In January, the Milwaukee County Transit System announced a temporary suspension of its Frequent Flyer freeway bus service; that suspension has now been changed to indefinite.

The bus routes were projected to return by March 7. But the transit system released a statement Wednesday stating that the service, with the exception of one route, will remain suspended. This time, no date was given for a return of service.

Only one bus line, Route 143, will return. Freeway Flyer routes 40, 43, 44, 46, 48, 49, and 79 will remain suspended.

MCTS has struggled to maintain stable and adequate staffing levels off and on for the past decade. But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the problem has come to a head.

Last summer the staffing crisis at MCTS came into public view when it announced that it would not provide shuttle services to Summerfest. At the time, MCTS Managing Director Dan Boehm described the decision as motivated by a “perfect storm of challenges.” Among them were the staffing problems.

One side effect of the struggle to staff the agency has been scheduled bus service going unfilled. In July 2021, the transit system told Urban Milwaukee that it had been unable to staff approximately .4% of service, translating to approximately 2,400 hours of service. 

A fully staffed system would have 760 bus operators, according to MCTS. At the start of 2022, when the Freeway Flyers were first suspended, the system had 716 bus operators, after hiring more than 130 new operators in 2021. In June 2021, the system had 714 bus operators.

Recent moves made by MCTS to address the staffing shortage include increased training pay, $1,000 sign-on bonuses for operators and $2,000 for mechanics – where the system is also finding itself short staffed. It has also tripled its advertising budget for job postings.

Being a bus operator is not an easy job, and the difficulty with hiring and retaining operators is something transit systems are struggling with nationwide.

The already difficult job is made harder by a grueling schedule that can have operators working seven days straight. On top of that is forced overtime, which arrives more often as staffing shortages worsen.

Drivers are also the public face of the transit system for passengers, and, at times, this can mean dealing with dangerous or violent behavior. The union representing MCTS employees has tried in the past to lobby the county for more transit security.

Donnell Shorter, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 998, previously told Urban Milwaukee, “I think if we’re ever gonna become fully staffed with drivers, security has to be solved.”

The routes being affected by the driver shortage are largely the same routes that have narrowly escaped the ax in years prior when the transit system was faced with a budget deficit.

In 2019, then-County Executive Chris Abele planned to release a budget that would have cut more than a dozen bus routes to balance the transit system budget. But the county eventually moved money from savings in healthcare costs and rescued some of the service on the chopping block, like Freeway Flyers and the festival shuttles. 

The underlying financial troubles faced by the transit system have not gone away in recent years. Ridership has been going down for years, but it plummeted at the onset of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the county has not received state transportation aids at a level to maintain even the status quo in the bus system over the past decade.

The transit system has instead been buoyed in recent years by $191 million in pandemic relief funding from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan.

The state Legislature cut the county’s transit aid by $32.7 million in the 2021-2023 state biennial budget. Gov. Tony Evers eventually offset some of that cut with $19.7 million in federal pandemic aid controlled by the state.

Transit in Milwaukee County can’t seem to catch a break. Even in times of relative plenty, when the normal pain of budget deficits is momentarily at bay, the system is still reducing service.

One thought on “Transportation: Freeway Flyer Buses Suspended Indefinitely”

  1. blurondo says:

    “The state Legislature cut the county’s transit aid by $32.7 million in the 2021-2023 state biennial budget.”

    One more telling display of the goal to crush Milwaukee shown by the authoritarian Republican controlled State Legislature.

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