Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Local Leaders Celebrate Launch of BRT Service

Connect 1, the new bus rapid transit service, launched Sunday.

By - Jun 5th, 2023 02:37 pm

Ceremonial ribbon cutting for Connect 1. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Monday to celebrate the launch of Milwaukee County Transit System‘s (MCTS) new Connect 1 bus rapid transit service.

The new nine-mile bus service began operating Sunday and is the first in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

Connect 1 provides high-frequency service, with a bus arriving every 10 or 15 minutes and faster bus service thanks to dedicated bus lanes and fewer stops. Elevated bus stations have been built allowing for level boarding, and they come equipped with off-bus fare validators and real-time signage. And the service will eventually be operated with 11 battery electric buses (BEB).

Umo Mobility, the transit technology platform hosting MCTS’s new app and fare system, is sponsoring the service ensuring all rides are free through the end of September.

MCTS, the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) and consultants from AECOM and HNTB have been working on the project since 2016. Denise Wandke, MCTS managing director, thanked all involved in the project. “MCTS, you are an amazing group of talent and each one of you matter and has made a difference in this project,” she told the audience.

At the ribbon cutting Monday, Wandke was joined by County Executive David Crowley, City of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, City of Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride, Lieutenant Governor Sara Rodriguez and Kelley Brookins, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration.

A recurring theme in the remarks made at the ribbon cutting was the importance of public transit for connecting residents to every corner of the county and to boosting the wider regional economy, and that the Connect 1 service represented an elevation of this critical public service.

“Throughout my nearly 30 years in transit one thing has not changed, and that’s what our riders want from public transit: fast and reliable transportation,” Wandke said. “And that’s what the Connect delivers.”

Crowley said the Connect 1 service “delivers on our promise and our commitment to all Milwaukee County residents to build a more equitable version of government that serves everyone.” He added: “and all of our residents should be able to access employment, access educational or recreational opportunities in any ZIP code in Milwaukee County, and this East-West BRT is a step in the right direction.”

Moore said Connect 1 is a “perfect name” for the new service, because it connects people to jobs and health care, as well as connecting “with our overall vision to have a sustainable environment.”

“Great cities have great transit opportunities,” Johnson said. “Cities with great quality of life, cities with great job opportunities, cities with thriving businesses have choices for people to travel, they have choices for people to get around from one point to another.”

McBride noted that Milwaukee was once a “a really great transit city” with streetcars running between downtown Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. “After many years Milwaukee is finally launching an up-to-date transit alternative that will make young, smart people with ideas come back to our region.”

Transit System on the Brink

While the event was celebrating the launch of Connect 1, more than one speaker noted that the transit system is on a perilous path financially.

Wandke noted that the BRT project was essentially a cost-neutral project for the transit system, in that it did not require increases to its operating or capital budget to develop. The approximately $55 million project was developed largely thanks to a $40.9 million grant from the FTA.

“Once the service launches, there is an ongoing operational expense to run the service,” she said, “But we mustn’t forget that MCTS still faces a fiscal budget crisis.”

It wasn’t just county officials raising alarm.

“The Milwaukee County Transit System is in peril because the Wisconsin Legislature has not provided the county and all Wisconsin municipalities with adequate funding for the essential services we need to keep our local economy strong,” said McBride. The mayor urged the crowd to write to contact their legislators saying “mass transit and a financially strong Milwaukee County are essential to our well being.”

Connect 1 Just the Beginning?

The Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and consultants are already working on a second BRT service running north and south through the 27th Street corridor.

Several speakers noted the role public transit plays in supporting the regional economy, and two speakers, Moore and Rodriguez directly offered support for the idea of a regional transit system that runs across Milwaukee County’s borders into neighboring communities.

“We need to talk about some more collaboration to make sure that this is a regional transportation system, Madame LG that we can rely on; it’s sustainable,” said Moore.

“Coming from Waukesha, I would like to see this be a Regional Transit Authority and be able to have that regional transit system,” said Rodriguez.

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