Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Disabled Riders Decry End To Taxi Service

Transit Union demands more funding, others push sheriff budget cuts at public budget meeting.

By - Nov 2nd, 2022 04:22 pm
MCTS Bus. Photo by Michael Horne.

MCTS Bus. Photo by Michael Horne.

Transit, in one form or another, was the major topic for Milwaukee County residents at the county board’s annual public budget meeting Tuesday night.

More than 30 county residents provided public comment, and, save a few speakers, the majority were primarily concerned with the proposed elimination of the paratransit taxi service, cuts to transit in general and the contract negotiations between the transit union and the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS). There were also several speakers who advocated for cutting the sheriff’s office budget and using those funds elsewhere in the county budget.

The annual public meeting is an opportunity for citizens to provide feedback directly to the board on the next year’s county budget before the board votes on it.

Paratransit Taxi Service

County Executive David Crowley‘s recommended budget would discontinue the paratransit same-day, on-demand taxi service.

The service allows disabled county residents to call a taxi to take them to appointments, work and anything else they need to access. At the public meeting Tuesday, many disabled residents explained to supervisors that the taxis were critical to maintaining their independence.

On top of that, nearly all of the speakers said that another service option, the paratransit bus service, cannot replace what they get out of the on-demand taxis — especially when the need is an emergency.

“I don’t want to have to schedule my day in advance,” said Denita Jackson. “That’s just not practical.” Jackson explained that she has used the taxi service to pick up a prescription during a workday. A trip like that, she said, couldn’t be done through the bus service.

Jennifer Wenzel, President of the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, told supervisors that many blind and vision impaired people use the taxi services to get to work. Because the vans are a rideshare service that need to be scheduled in advance which does not take riders directly to their destination, they are not always a viable method for people to get to and from work.

“I myself am pretty busy in my life,” said Kevin Meyers, “There’s  many things that I do. Using that van service has not worked for me. There’s been too many times I’ve been late I’ve had to cancel appointments; there’s been many times they’d go right past my drop off point to pick up somebody else, or drop them off.”

Meyers said that his job often involved him being on call, and that the bus service would not allow him to respond on time when called in. “Being out of commission for one and a half to two hours, that would not work, I could not do my job,” Meyers said.

Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, told supervisors that many people with disabilities rely on the county’s paratransit services for employment, healthcare and voting. “And I can tell you, that is one of the most significant barriers people have to participate in our democracy is they don’t have transportation,” she said. “They may not be able to get to DMV to get a photo ID, they may not be able to get to their polling place. So your support is making a difference to enable people to be integrated members of our community and to participate in our democracy.”

Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson and Supervisor Liz Sumner, chair of the finance committee, authored a budget amendment that was intended to restore the on-demand taxi service. The amendment was recommended for approval by the finance committee.

But transit officials and Crowley did not eliminate the taxi service because they lacked the funding to simply maintain it. The decision, Donna Brown-Martin, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) told supervisors more than once this month, was because of a change in federal regulations created by the Federal Transportation Administration.

The new regulations require vehicles that are wheelchair accessible. There is only one paratransit taxi provider in the Milwaukee area and it does not have these ADA-compliant vehicles, Brown-Martin said. What’s more, because there is only one contractor in the market, Brown-Martin said the county would need to implement random drug screening of the drivers under these new federal rules, which would be an additional expense.

Yes, we do have to come up with an alternative that will provide services for people,” she told the board’s finance committee. “I just can’t provide you with exactly what’s out there right now, because it violates ADA requirements and the state and Milwaukee County is not going to do that.”

She said MCDOT will work with advocates and stakeholders in the disabled community to come up with a solution. But she added that she cannot move forward with the taxi service as it currently is because it would violate federal regulations and “the last thing I want to do is to lose my federal funding for overall transit efforts.”

Transit Union Contract and Sheriff’s Budget

Members of the local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 998 attended the board’s public meeting and called on supervisors to provide MCTS the funding it needs to meet the union’s contract demands. The union has been negotiating a new two-year contract with MCTS since May. Recently negotiations came to a head when members voted down MCTS’ final contract offer and authorized a strike.

The union told supervisors that the transit union is at a tipping point due to the difficulty of the job, stagnant wages, and the challenge of being frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The contract offer from MCTS, which offers a small wage increase that the union says will be eaten up by increased healthcare costs, could push transit workers over the edge into a strike.

Several residents spoke in favor of reducing the budget of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and in favor of some of the amendments authored by Sup. Ryan Clancy that would do just that. Clancy authored more than 30 amendments that would take funding from the MCSO.

One resident, Alex Larson, said he felt the MCSO was unaccountable to the board or county residents, despite their request for more funding. “There are so many needs that need to be met outside of policing,” Larson said.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us