Milwaukee Transit to Get a Desperately Needed Boost

If there’s one region in the country that desperately needs better transit, it’s Milwaukee. And there are a ton of places that badly need better transit.

This new route, the 30X, will run along the system's most widely ridden route, carrying 4 million rides a year. Image: Urban Milwaukee via MCTS
This new route, the 30X, will run along the system’s most widely ridden route, carrying 4 million rides a year. Image: Urban Milwaukee via MCTS

The notoriously segregated Milwaukee region lacks strong transit connections between the city and growing suburban job centers. About 47 percent of the region’s African American population, mostly concentrated in a few Milwaukee neighborhoods, lacks driver’s licenses. Among African Americans living in the city of Milwaukee, the unemployment rate is a staggering 24 percent.

Jeramey Jannene at Urban Milwaukee writes that the region has wrangled the funding to expand transit service with four new frequently running express routes, despite a lack of political support from high places:

Funding for the express new routes comes from a $17 million federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant that provides operating support through 2017. A prior CMAQ grant funded the Blue, Green and Red lines that began service in 2012. The new Route 61 will be funded in part by the financial settlement of the suit by the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope and Black Health Coalition of Wisocnsin against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation which argued that it discriminated against minorities for spending so much money on the Zoo Interchange project and doing little for transportation of urban minority residents who depend on bus transit.

The new express routes will achieve speed gains primarily by stopping once every quarter mile where there is no underlying service (such as the western end of GoldLine Wisconsin – UWM Express route where Route 10 service will be eliminated), and once every half mile where there is underlying service (such as the PuprleLine with the existing Route 27). Today’s bus service generally stops once every two blocks or eighth of a mile.

But in a few years, writes Jannene, the funding will run out:

The grant comes the federal CMAQ grant program, which has funded a number of things in the Milwaukee area from streetscaping on Wisconsin Ave to new bus purchases. The most recent grant will fund service on the new routes for three years, but was needed as a way to avoid potential service cuts caused by a ten percent reduction in state operating support.

This is a continuing issue for Milwaukee County. MCTS has been using a CMAQ grant to fund new express service since 2012 to avoid service cuts, but that grant expires at the end of this year. The state aid cuts came in the first budget passed by Governor Scott Walker in 2011 and weren’t restored in the latest budget, despite a budget surplus. In 2013, state aid made up 43 percent of the transit system’s operating budget.

Over at Network blog the Political Environment, James Rowen applauds civil rights groups for their $13 million settlement against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which is going to help fund expanded bus service. Rowen writes that discrimination in housing and employment opportunities dates back to the 1950s in the region. Lingering anti-urban sentiment has driven policies that further entrench sprawl and car dependence, isolating central city residents and prompting several civil rights and environmental justice lawsuits, some of which have succeeded.

Elsewhere on the Network: Urban Cincy checks in on the newly opened Tucson Streetcar to see how it’s measuring up to expectations. And Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space says churches shouldn’t fear the arrival of streetcars, and offers a number of examples of churches that thrive on streetcar routes.

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