Graham Kilmer

County Seeks Federal Funds For 86 Buses

Applying for $73.8 million in grants for new clean-diesel and battery electric buses.

By - Apr 1st, 2023 01:22 pm
New Gillig Clean-Diesel Bus. Photo Courtesy of MCTS.

New Gillig Clean-Diesel Bus. Photo Courtesy of MCTS.

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has many buses that need replacing and limited funds to do so. But it’s going after approximately $73.8 million in federal grants to finance the purchase of 86 clean-diesel and electric buses.

The MCTS fleet has been dwindling in recent years. In 2018, the system had 400 buses, but it now has 321, and 17 are used for training. Out of these buses, 80 are considered beyond their useful life, as the lifespan of a bus is considered approximately 12 years and 500,000 miles.

The diminishing number of buses has been cited by MCTS as one of the primary causes for the cancellation of the special Summerfest service that ran to and from the festival and Park and Ride lots. The last time MCTS ran the service, in 2019, it set aside 70 buses for Summerfest. Now, the best the system could muster, without taking away from the daily routes, is 15, according to MCTS.

Part of the problem is that MCTS has been struggling against a structural imbalance between how much money the system receives and how much money is needed to operate it. MCTS has been using U.S. Department of Transportation aid, called “5307 funds” to support its operations, though the grant funding is supposed to be used for capital expenses, like bus purchases, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a non-partisan think tank.

The federal government has not provided operating assistance to local transit systems since the 1990s. But around the same time federal laws were also changed to allow these 5307 funds to be used for maintenance in operations budgets. “This allowed MCTS to use the funds to support fixed route operations, though in doing so it must forsake their usage for bus purchases,” the report stated.

If the transit system is awarded the grant funding it seeks, it would be able to replace the 80 buses considered beyond their useful life. The Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), which oversees the quasi-governmental MCTS, is seeking funding for new buses under three separate federal grant programs: Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE), Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program, and the Low or No Emission program.

MCDOT has applied for approximately $45 million under the RAISE program, according to an MCDOT report. It would use $33.6 million (plus $8.4 million in local matching funds) to purchase 46 buses. Additionally, it would use $11.4 million (plus a $2.85 million local match) to purchase “Charging infrastructure, facility security, passenger counters, bus shelters, ADA-compliant bus stop landing pads,” according to a March 17 report.

The department has also applied for $14.4 million each from the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program and the Low or No Emission program, according to an MCDOT report. The first would be used to purchase 30 clean diesel buses and the second to purchase 10 battery electric buses and two charging units.

BEB’s are nearly three times as expensive as clean diesel buses, which typically cost as much as $1.5 million and $600,000 respectively.

The transit system has made similar applications for federal funding in recent years. In 2021, the system had more than 200 aging buses that needed to be replaced by 2024. And with federal 5307 funds supporting operations, competitive grants or debt have become about the only way to pay for replacing buses.

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