Graham Kilmer

Board Plans Lobbying Push for Transit Funding

The county needs state assistance to save transit system from big cuts.

By - Oct 25th, 2023 03:55 pm
Essential trips only on MCTS buses. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Essential trips only on MCTS buses. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Budget Committee advanced a proposal to have the county’s lobbyists work to secure long-term funding for mass transit.

The committee approved an amendment Wednesday that directs the county’s Office of Government Affairs to “advocate for a permanent source of transit and transportation revenue from the Wisconsin State Legislature to operate the Milwaukee County Transit and Paratransit systems.”

The resolution was sponsored by Supervisors Peter Burgelis, Caroline Gómez-Tom, Ryan Clancy and Shawn Rolland.

“Our incredibly talented Office of Government Affairs has successfully lobbied and championed for the needs of Milwaukee County at the state and federal level, especially in the last year where we’ve seen the opportunity to ensure financial stability for the county with increased shared revenue and a local sales tax option,” Burgelis said.

The amendment is intended to make long-term, sustainable transit funding a priority for the county’s lobbyists in 2024.

In recent years, The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has been preparing for an unprecedented budget deficit to hit once it runs out of federal funding released during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the passage of the additional 0.4% countywide sales tax created a budget surplus for the first time in decades heading into 2024, and that deficit has been pushed off, for now.

In County Executive David Crowley‘s 2024 recommended budget, an additional $16 million was put into the MCTS budget, allowing it to spread the remaining federal funds out over the next three years. Officials now have until 2027 to develop a funding solution for the transit system.

Much like the county at large, the transit system has a structural deficit: the annual cost of MCTS is more than the annual revenue it receives. The majority of the transit system’s operating revenue comes from the state’s annual allocation of “mass transit operating assistance.” This funding assistance from the state has remained stagnant for more than a decade while operating costs increase annually with inflation.

This funding, called “mass transit operating assistance,” is the largest single source of funding for MCTS each year and covers approximately 50% of the cost of operating the system.

What’s more, the Republican-controlled Legislature recently put this funding in a position that makes it more susceptible to budget cuts at the state level. The majority of Mass Transit Operating Assistance is allocated to Milwaukee County every year, and Republicans moved it out of a segregated fund and into the general fund. The move puts it in direct competition for funding with K-12 education and healthcare.

Supervisors referenced this recent move by the Legislature in the amendment approved by the board’s budget committee. The amendment states that the Republican’s budgetary shuffle will “likely impact future transit support.”

“This amendment ensures that one of our top priorities — that affects everyone in Milwaukee County — that a permanent source of transit funding be lobbied for, be a top priority for government affairs in the coming year,” Burgelis said.

The amendment still needs to be approved by the full board and signed by the county executive as part of the approved 2024 budget. That process will play out over the coming weeks.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research organization, gamed out how MCTS and the county can budget for transit without long-term funding. The answer, invariably, boiled down to budget cuts. The county will see government-wide budget deficits return in 2026 and annual increases in the Vehicle Registration Fee, or wheel tax, are politically unlikely.

The county needs the state to change course on transit funding if MCTS is to avoid large cuts in the future.

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