Bad Planning and Bad Transit Put Jobs Out of Reach for Milwaukeeans

Milwaukee is the poster child for the special kind of economic oppression that results from a combination of residential segregation, bad transit options, and job sprawl. This is a problem to some extent in almost every city in the country, but it’s worse in formerly industrial cities where big employers have decamped for the suburbs. And in Wisconsin, where the governor and state DOT are determined to spend billions on highway expansions while starving transit, the situation is especially desperate.

Low-income workers who lack cars in Milwaukee face major structural obstacles to employment. Photo: Urban Milwaukee
As Milwaukee bus service shrinks, low-income workers who don’t own cars face even greater structural obstacles to employment. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

Matthew Wisla recently wrote a great synopsis of the problem for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, which Network blog Urban Milwaukee reposted. Here’s his report:

It has been decades since the city was an engine for regional job growth. “Most of the job growth in recent years is either at the outer parts of the county or outside of the county,” said Kristi Luzar, deputy director of programs, Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin. “The biggest problem facing many people in the city is getting connections to jobs.”

Employment in Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties increased by 56,271 from 1994 to 2009, while the city lost 27,858 jobs, according to a report published earlier this year by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Reaching suburban employment centers can be challenging for city residents. About 13 percent of city households don’t have access to a car, according to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

State budget cuts that began in 2001 forced MCTS to eliminate routes and now the bus system reaches about 1,300 fewer employers than it would have before the cuts began. Approximately 30,900 workers are employed by those businesses in an average year, according to the Center for Economic Development.

The MCTS says it has reduced bus service 14.5 percent since 2000 in response to successive rounds of state budget cuts. The most recent cut came in the 2011 biannual budget when the MCTS state appropriation was slashed by 10 percent. Although about 4 percent of the funding was restored in a later budget, MCTS is currently operating under an approximate $4.1 million shortfall in state money compared to the 2009 budget.

Even low-cost methods to improve bus service — like dedicated bus lanes — are out of reach, say local transit officials, because they never know what’s coming in the next state budget. Without some change in state policy, or a new regional planning effort, the problem will likely continue to get worse.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Notes from the Underground looks at the grassroots momentum in Akron, Ohio, to rethink transportation. The Political Environment discusses how Wisconsin’s de facto ban on the phrase “climate change” affects policy in wide-ranging ways. And Greater Greater Washington wonders if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact will erode local zoning and planning authority in the U.S.

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