MCTS Launches #SaveTheBus Campaign
Transit system raising awareness of its impending budget crisis.
Leaders of the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) have launched a public awareness campaign that they hope will help save the system in face of a dire financial situation.
The transit system faces a massive budget deficit in 2025 when federal COVID-19 stimulus funding runs out. The Milwaukee County Comptroller has estimated that the deficit will be at least $20 million, possibly more, by 2025. And a recent report by the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum estimates that the transit system could find itself short as much as $40.5 million over the next five years.
This isn’t the first time the transit system has faced budget cuts. For more than a decade the transit system has weathered cuts. In 2023, it saw a comparatively small $4 million cut, which was absorbed by reducing the frequency of buses along several routes.
“But we’ve never seen anything of this size before,” said Denise Wandke, MCTS interim managing director, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.
Wandke told Urban Milwaukee that the transit system has begun modeling what the looming budget cuts will mean for the system. Some initial estimates indicate these cuts would translate to 6 million fewer rides annually, 50% of all routes reduced or eliminated, 74,000 workers would lose transportation to their job and well over 2,000 businesses would lose bus routes that brought their employees to work.
“Cuts to transit like this will affect everyone, whether they’re a rider or not,” Wandke said. “A city of this size needs mass transit to function properly.”
Transit officials have begun meeting with state legislators and MCTS has been buying ads as part of its “#SavetheBus” campaign. But the system is looking for partners in the business community and residents that will help it secure its future. “We’re looking for the community to help, and to help us for the people that need us,” Wandke said.
For a system that has already been diminished by small cuts over many years, cuts like this would rapidly accelerate the decline of the transit system.
Wandke has been with MCTS for nearly 30 years, 11 of them as a driver. “So when I started here, we had the big articulated buses, the 64-foot buses, and we provided service to Summerfest, and to MPS, to every state fair, all those things, and money was not an issue,” she said. “And our ridership was incredible; we used to pack those buses.”
Before the cuts, the transit system was much more efficient and dependable. As wait times stretch from 10 minutes to 30 or 40, people begin to look for other ways of getting around.
“So I expect that as routes are cut and service is minimized that absolutely will affect our ridership,” Wandke said.
Ridership has been declining for years as the system was cut, and, like many cities, it took a nosedive when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even now, MCTS has yet to reach pre-COVID-19 ridership levels. Like the county as a whole, transit funding has been stagnant for approximately a decade while inflationary pressures drive costs higher every year.
The bottom line, Wandke said, is that the transit needs sustainable, dedicated funding. “We’re in dire need of a solution, a long-term solution.”