MCTS Buses Could Again Serve Summerfest, But Issues Remain
And even if they do, it would be in a much-diminished capacity.
The transit system is looking into bringing back two shuttles lines, a northern shuttle from the Brown Deer Road park-and-ride lot and a southern shuttle from the College Avenue park-and-ride lot. The return of service would still be a far cry from the nine park-and-ride shuttles MCTS offered in 2019, the last year it ran the shuttle network. Summerfest paid a private operator to provide five shuttle services in 2022, and it was twice as expensive for riders as the MCTS service.
The Summerfest shuttles were first eliminated in 2021. The annual music festival was returning from hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the transit system was facing what then-managing director Dan Boehm called a “perfect storm.” That storm remains the same today as the system struggles to retain employees, has a dwindling fleet of buses and a looming annual budget shortfall estimated at $20 million or more by the time federal stimulus funding runs out in 2025.
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors added language to the 2023 budget directing transit officials to “work with stakeholders to explore the revival of Summerfest and other festival bus service.” But the budget also included an approximately $4 million cut to transit service in 2023 to begin slow-walking the transit system toward the diminished size that can be funded once the federal money dries up.
The exploration is occurring, based on recent discussions between county transit officials and officials from the City of Milwaukee. At a meeting of the city’s Public Transportation, Utilities, and Waterways Review Board, Ald. Robert Bauman asked MCTS officials why they couldn’t bring back the “first-class operation” that was the MCTS Summerfest service.
“We’ve met with Summerfest multiple times to talk through different scenarios,” said Denise Wandke, MCTS interim managing director. One challenge to bringing the service back is that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) bars public transit agencies from competing with private companies for contracts. If MCTS accepts money from Summerfest for the service the FTA considers the agency a charter and it loses access to federal transit funding, Boehm said in 2021.
Private charters have the first right of refusal for the shuttles being contemplated, and that offer has not been made at this point.
A spokesperson for MCTS said the agency’s past Summerfest shuttles were not considered a charter because the system was operating the Freeway Flyer service year-round. MCTS suspended Freeway Flyers in early 2022 with no plans to resume the service.
But should the private charters refuse a contract, MCTS still lacks the buses and drivers needed to provide the same level of service it did the last time the shuttles ran in 2019.
“We can pretty much afford to give them 15 buses for their service just because UWM and other local campuses are off during the summer, we have some extra buses, that’s keeping our fingers crossed, and we have no mechanical failures or terrible accidents that take those losses on the service,” said Wandke.
MCTS used more than 70 buses the last time it provided Summerfest service, Wandke said. In 2018, the system had approximately 400 buses and by 2019 it had 369 buses, according to its annual reports. The system now has 321 buses and 17 of those are used for training, Wandke said.
“If there’s 10 buses that drop from the sky I would put 10 more on Summerfest,” Wandke said.
In 2021, the transit system reported that it needed to replace approximately 233 buses by 2024. “We continue to lose funds, not have funds available to us in order to purchase the buses,” Wandke said. “We continue to shrink as a system.”
Part of the “storm” that canceled the service in 2021 was also the ongoing staffing shortage. For years now, MCTS has been losing bus operators just as fast as they can hire new ones. Between 2020 and 2021 the transit system hired more than 250 new bus operators, but it still began 2022 understaffed and below the staffing average (731) for 2020. The struggle to retain employees has also prevented the system from meeting scheduled service hours. In 2021, the transit system missed more than 7,000 budgeted service hours.
Based on the numbers Wandke gave the review board, MCTS has been losing more operators than it can hire. She said the system is now at 683 operators.
With constraints on the transit system’s budget and the number of operators and buses it can marshal, providing a shuttle service for Summerfest could mean pulling resources from elsewhere in the system. And budgeting for it in the future will translate to a funding cut elsewhere in the system. MCTS officials have made this point in the past, and Wandke reiterated it for the city review board, adding, “I don’t want to take anything away from our regular riders.”
Whether or not it resumes Summerfest service, the system will launch a new route on June 4 that terminates near the festival grounds. Connect, the nine-mile bus rapid transit line, will have its eastern terminus in The Couture transit concourse, 909 E. Michigan St. The facility is across N. Lincoln Memorial Dr. from the Henry Maier Festival Park north gate.
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