Graham Kilmer

MCTS Launches #SaveTheBus Campaign

Transit system raising awareness of its impending budget crisis.

By - Apr 21st, 2023 04:23 pm
Milwaukee County Transit System bus. Photo by Dave Reid.

Milwaukee County Transit System bus. Photo by Dave Reid.

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.”

6 thoughts on “Transportation: MCTS Launches #SaveTheBus Campaign”

  1. keewaysservices says:

    Bus riding is passé and is not coming back taxpayer cannot afford to prop up system to save job. Count should purchase smaller electric buses or vans

  2. says:

    Seems to me whenever I see a county bus on the street its always empty save for the driver. shouldn’t we strategize for the transit of the future rather that preserving a system that no longer serves the community?

  3. blurondo says:

    Here is some research on the effects of transit cuts.

  4. Betsy Blair says:

    Half the time I take the bus the reader doesn’t work so I ride for free- maybe consistently collecting fares is a first step? Current system using apps is just amazing – very accurate minute to minute info, I’m happy to leave my car at home when I go to work.

  5. It is clear that the case for public transit support needs to be made to the general public and decision-makers. While officials at transit agencies are well-versed in transit benefits, they cannot seem to explain these well. Moreover, because of the myopia of concentrating only on transit “from A to B,” transit planners and supporters also fail to make a case for the intelligent use of land surrounding transit stations. With well-used destinations of all kinds–housing, business, public facilities, entertainment, schools, stores, restaurants, etc.–right near stations along transit routes, ridership can thrive. The variety of land use at different stations determines service by different kinds of transit–from bus, bus rapid transit, to urban rail–as well as active transit (walking, bicycling) based on density and activity levels.

    However, laws are in place at all levels of government that hold the car supreme in its accommodation, use, and storage to the detriment of all other modes of mobility or alternative land use patterns. There are minimum parking requirements and single-family zoning. There is NIMBY opposition to anything other than low-density car-oriented development. There is highly-developed anti-transit rhetoric by those ideologically opposed to transit. There is a deliberate lack of consistent funding for transit.

    Many decision-makers, transit officials, and the public are car-dependent and cannot seem to appreciate the role transit plays or ways to think about it differently. Transit is an excellent example of a shared resource that can benefit all. The people who need public transit, as well as those who do not use it, benefit, as it provides a more balanced transportation and mobility system for everyone. Car drivers should be among public transit’s most prominent advocates.

    Public transit is a vital resource because it is the difference between having multiple urban fabrics–walking and transit being the historic first two–to having a single fabric–for automobiles only–in an area. The effort to support transit is laudable–and I support it–but the portrayal of transit as a kind of charity to support is entirely wrong. Public transit is a multiplier of a city’s health, equity, livability, and prosperity and should be seen and supported as such.

  6. TransitRider says:

    One of my favorite quotes:

    “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” (Gustavo Metro, Mayor of Bogota)

    So true!

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