Transit System Will Continue to Shrink
Budget cuts beginning in 2023 will soften landing from transit system's fiscal cliff.
The 2023 recommended budget from County Executive David Crowley is the first sign that the days of county budgets fat with federal stimulus funding are over.
In spring this year, the Office of the Milwaukee County Comptroller released a report projecting the transit system would face a $32.9 million budget deficit by 2025 when the $191 million in stimulus funding infused during the COVID-19 pandemic runs out. But with cuts expected to come to the transit system budget in 2023 and 2024, a new projection estimates the 2025 gap at $20 million.
Loss of the Freeway Flyers will come as less of a shock to the system as MCTS has not been operating them since January this year, for lack of operators — which is another problem contributing to the shrinking size of the transit system. Even with millions in federal funds plugging budget gaps these past years, the transit system has stopped operating service to ethnic festivals and the Summerfest shuttles for lack of personnel and buses. By 2023, the system is budgeted to have 86 fewer buses than it did in 2018, according to a budget analysis by the comptroller. And across the board, the transit system’s struggle to retain operators caused it to miss thousands of hours of schedule service in 2021, and, according to the union representing transit workers, is contributing to a stalemate during the latest round of contract negotiations between the MCTS and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998.
The budget challenges facing MCTS are caused, in part, by the same structural financial problems facing the rest of the county. State revenue sent to the county has been frozen for more than decade, while the cost to maintain the government has risen every year with inflation. This has cost the county approximately $455 million over the past decade, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. On top of that, the county’s infamous pension fiasco has cost the county approximately $600 million over the past 20 years. So the county does not have the funds necessary to bail out the transit system, which has seen its own main sources of revenue declining or stagnant.
The transit system operates on money from fares, advertising, the Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) and county property taxes. But ridership has been declining for more than 40 years. This trend accelerated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and MCTS has yet to see ridership return to the level it saw in 2019. In order to maintain the system, MCTS and county policymakers on the board and in the county executive’s office, plugged the massive holes in the transit budget with nearly $130 million in federal stimulus funds. In 2023 and 2024, it’s expected the county will continue to infused the system with an estimated $43 million in federal funds, according to the comptroller’s analysis.
2023 Bus Route Changes
The East-West Bus Rapid Transit Project is planned to launch in June 2023. Planning for the $55 million first began in 2016. The BRT will be a nine-mile route running between downtown Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. It will have 11 Battery Electric Buses (BEB) and will run on a mix of dedicated lanes with fewer stops and traffic signal priority. It will also have platform bus stations allowing for level boarding and payment terminals allowing for faster boarding and less time at each stop.
Three routes are being modified to serve as connections to the BRT. The BlueLine will no longer run south of Marquette University, turning around when it reaches W. Wisconsin Ave.; Route 14 will be replaced with Route 24, which will run primarily along W. Forest Home Ave. and S. 16th St., but not north of Wisconsin Avenue; the northern leg of Route 14 will be modified to run as a connection between the downtown section of the BRT and Bayshore.
Paratransit Taxi Eliminated
The same-day on-demand paratransit service offered by the county will end in May 2023 when the contract with the current provider lapses.
Donna Brown-Martin, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), said the decision was made to not re-up the contract for the taxi service because of new rules from the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) that require these services to have wheelchair accessible vehicles for riders that use mobility devices, and drug and alcohol screening for the drivers.
Brown-Martin said if there are more than two taxi service providers the random drug and alcohol screening is not required, under the new rules. But there’s only one taxi service provider in Milwaukee County and it “cannot meet demand as it stands right now. Nor can they provide ADA taxis at this time,” she said. “Fixed route has become more accessible due to other overall transit requirements.”
Brown-Martin said MCDOT plans to undertake a broader community engagement effort before the end of the taxi service “and speak with folks about what this means.” She also said she plans to seek an extension of the service to give MCDOT and the community time to come up with replacements for the service.
“Something has to happen,” she said. “Because I can’t renew the contract the way it is now.”
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