Graham Kilmer

Bus Route Cuts Coming in 2023

Final 2023 county budget cut millions from MCTS funding, causing reductions in service.

By - Nov 21st, 2022 01:24 pm
Bus. Photo courtesy of MCTS.

Bus. Photo courtesy of MCTS.

When he introduced his 2023 budget proposal Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley included a more than $4 million cut to bus service.

The majority of the transit cuts laid out in Crowley’s proposed budget remain, but amendments approved by the Milwaukee County Board have restored funding for on-demand paratransit taxi service and directed the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) to “work with stakeholders to explore the revival of Summerfest and other festival bus service.”

Four routes will have their bus frequency slowed down, and 11 routes and special services will be eliminated.

These cuts are intended to soften the blow from an upcoming, estimated $20 million budget shortfall in 2025, but they will also have the effect of reducing the number of operators needed, on paper, to run the system — as a number of these routes were already cancelled for a lack of drivers in recent years.

The Freeway Flyers routes (40, 43, 44, 46, 48, and 49) are being eliminated. They were suspended in January 2022 due to the operator shortage, and three months later suspended indefinitely. The 2023 budget makes their demise official.

The bus route (137) that serviced the county’s Community Reintegration Center (CRC), formerly called the House of Correction (HOC), is being cancelled. This service was paused at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and never returned. MCTS said in a statement, “Service will be eliminated due to previously low levels of ridership.”

Two routes that offered service to Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties respectively will stop running: the Waukesha service (route 79) which ran between Wauwatosa and Menomonee Falls and the Ozaukee County Express (Route 143). Ozaukee County is continuing the express route with GoRiteway, a private transportation company.

The bus services running to Milwaukee’s summer ethnic festivals and Brewers games are also being cut from the budget. Neither ran in 2022 as they were also casualties of the transit system’s struggle to retain bus operators.

Four bus routes are being slowed down, with buses arriving more infrequently. Route 34 (from Downtown to 35th and Capitol Dr.) will go from having a bus arriving every 20 minutes to every 30 minutes. Routes 88 (Brown Deer Rd.) and 92 (92nd St.) will be see bus frequency go one one every 30 minutes to one every 40 minutes. MCTS announced it will not release details on the changes to Route 52 (Bay View to South Milwaukee) until 2023.

In 2021, the transit system completed a multi-year project, including planning and implementation, that rebalanced the transit system to have more routes with high-frequency bus service.

The transit system has been faced with stagnant and declining revenue for years, driven in part by the decline in farebox revenue as fewer and fewer people ride the bus. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ridership already in decline began to plummet. Since then the transit system has been filling its budget with federal stimulus funds just to maintain the system.

Those stimulus funds are expected to run out by 2025. At which time the transit system will be facing a budget gap of at least $20 million. The Milwaukee County Comptroller had previously estimated the budget deficit at more than $32 million, but the latest projection included in the comptroller’s review of Crowley’s 2023 budget, which included these service cuts, lowered the estimated deficit to the new $20 million figure.

Crowley and the transit system have explained that the cuts in the 2023 budget are intended to reduce the budget drop for system in 2025. In a statement announcing the finalization of 2023 route cuts, the system said “MCTS has been directed to begin to reduce service to chip away at the future fiscal gap.”

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