Graham Kilmer

County Bus System Up By 1 Million Rides

MCTS hits 8.4 million rides this year, a big increase, but still far behind pre-pandemic levels.

By - Aug 15th, 2022 10:37 am
MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

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

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has struggled against the massive drop in ridership that occurred when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Milwaukee.

And while the pandemic is not entirely over, ridership has been slowly returning to the system as more of daily life begins to resemble what it was before the pandemic.

On Thursday, the transit system announced  “an achievement worth celebrating,” declaring it is 1 million rides ahead of where it was last year. That is, MCTS has provided approximately 8.4 million rides this year.

“We are grateful to our riders, our operators, and our community for choosing public transit,” said Kristina Hoffman, MCTS director of marketing and communications. “We want riders to know that they are playing a major role in MCTS’s road to recovery.”

“MCTS attributes the increase to a combination of trends including the expansion of high-frequency service begun last year with MCTS NEXT, unpredictable gas prices and more people returning to the office,” an MCTS statement said.

It also noted that its annual survey indicated that social and recreational use of the bus system is up 5% compared to last year. Paratransit, which is a service for people who are unable to use fixed route bus because of a disability, saw its ridership increase 27%, according to MCTS.

Riders have been gradually returning for more than a year. In 2021, the transit system saw ridership go up 13% during the summer and fall, compared to the year prior.

In 2020, MCTS annual ridership was halved due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its annual report notes that “week-to-week” ridership counts were essentially 50% of what they were the year before. While the shutdown of businesses and increase in working at home impacted ridership, the transit system was also operating buses at a reduced passenger capacity for all of 2020.

Ridership went off a cliff in 2020, but it had been flagging for years. In 2016, the transit system provided more than 40 million rides. Three years later, in 2019, it provided just nearly 29 million rides. And the decline had been steady during the intervening years, with the transit system reporting approximately 34 million in 2017 and 30 million in 2018.

The transit system, like so many other services provided by Milwaukee County, has been constricted by the long-term stagnation in state funding despite annual inflationary increases in the cost to do business as usual.

Between 2016 and 2020, the transit system saw the number of routes it operates go from 59 to 48 and the number of bus stops from more than 5,582 to 4,591.

Funding for transit has been unsustainable, leading to cuts to transit that produce further declines in ridership, which in turn negatively impacts the transit system’s revenue, and so on. The end point, now visible, is a financial disaster for the transit system that will land in 2025.

In March, the Office of the Milwaukee County Comptroller released a five-year financial forecast for the county. In it, the comptroller estimates that when the federal relief funding dumped into the transit system during the pandemic runs out the system will be faced with a $32.9 million budget deficit. If this deficit is closed with budget cuts, it will be a 20% cut, based on the 2022 MCTS budget.

A May report by the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) laid out the options available to close the budget gap. Ultimately, it found that the gap can’t be closed without harming the system or making changes that are deeply unpopular both politically and with the public.

“Recovering the riders lost due to the pandemic shows transit is an essential, everyday service for Milwaukee County residents and points to the need for a well-funded transit system to keep Milwaukee County healthy, growing, and contributing to the success of the region,” Hoffman said. “Currently, we face an upcoming fiscal cliff that will force us to make difficult decisions unless long-term funding solutions can be identified at local, state and federal levels.”

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