Milwaukee’s Transit Service in Crisis as Leaders Bicker

The Wisconsin city may cut 16 bus routes serving vulnerable residents if it can't dig up $5.9 million.

Milwaukee could be forced to eliminate 16 bus routes next year if it doesn't come up with $5.9 million in funding.
Milwaukee could be forced to eliminate 16 bus routes next year if it doesn't come up with $5.9 million in funding.

Milwaukee County Transit System leaders are mulling cuts to 16 bus routes next year that would cripple the mobility of commuters, college students, and communities of color — all because state officials can’t agree on how to close a $5.9 million budget gap.

Service cutbacks supposedly would affect only 3 percent of riders and are weighted more toward suburban commuters — who are more likely to own a car than residents of Milwaukee’s poorer neighborhoods, according to MCTS officials. Yet suburban bus routes have been crucial in helping inner-city residents connect with job opportunities in the county’s far-flung neighborhoods, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study

The study, which Streetsblog reported on last October, polled workers at 700 employers that collectively employed 15,000 people; the firms had only recently become accessible by bus. Eighty-seven percent of the survey respondents said that the bus routes were extremely important for their ability to maintain their employment; 66 percent said that they used the bus primarily to get to their jobs, and 42 percent said that would have to quit if the bus routes were eliminated.

“The region will not prosper as long as large areas of Milwaukee remain impoverished, cut off from areas where job growth is occurring,” wrote urban studies professor and study author Joel Rast.

MCTS insists that the service cuts won’t endanger the livelihood of vulnerable Milwaukee residents.

“If you look at us being stewards of services for low-income, minority populations that have endured 400 years of racism, it’s hard for us to say we’re going to take two miles of a bus route off of this road in the county so that we can preserve park-ride service for — and I’m overgeneralizing — a suburbanite who can afford their own car,” Dan Boehm, MCTS president and managing director, told the Journal Sentinel.

But transit-union leaders, who have been negotiating with MCTS after their contract expired in March 2018, say that the cuts will hurt local workers.

“Don’t talk about jobs if you’re not talking about transportation; it doesn’t make any sense,” James Macon, President of Amalgamated Transit Union 998, told the Journal Sentinel. “All the jobs are outside of Milwaukee County.”

The state government has bickered over the transit budget all summer.

Republicans, who control the legislature, had proposed a one-time pot of $90 million to pay for local road reconstruction, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the measure, shrinking the amount to $75 million and proposing that the money be allocated to other projects, such as more buses, harbor dredging, and a Milwaukee streetcar project. That incensed Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who threatened to override the veto.

Milwaukee leaders said they needed state lawmakers to get on board and maintain existing services so that the county won’t be forced to make painful choices next year.

“The county’s ability to adequately fund and maintain what we would like to is diminishing every year,” Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele told Fox 6 in a statement. “We need adequate support from the state or the option to use new tools to generate necessary funding going forward in order to put both Milwaukee County and all of Wisconsin on a path to a sustainable future.”

The MCTS says that the budget impasse will necessitate the elimination of six Freeway Flyer routes, five shuttles, four bus routes on college campuses, and the Route 52 Clement-15th Avenue line. Two other bus paths, Route 55 Layton Avenue and Route 60 6th Street, would need to shorten service along their routes and curtail transit to Brewers home games, the Wisconsin State Fair, Summerfest, and several ethnic festivals. The proposed reductions come on top of cuts that went into effect this year, including the elimination of five routes that served school districts and the shortening of the “JobLines” extension on Route 57.



6 thoughts on Milwaukee’s Transit Service in Crisis as Leaders Bicker

  1. Um. Just so you know, the picture is of the Milwaukee Avenue bus in Chicago, not a bus in Milwaukee, WI.

  2. Tim – I noticed the same thing. I would hope Milwaukee County is cutting transit bus routes to Chicago! 🙂

  3. This is a poorly written article, I hope Mr. Short is capable of better.

    The title is misleading, County leaders are fairly unified on this issue. The cuts are necessary due to a structural deficit imposed by the State of Wisconsin on Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee which limits their revenue options while costs continue to rise faster than revenues.

    “Service cutbacks supposedly would affect only 3 percent of riders and are weighted more toward suburban commuters…”

    Editorializing in a news article much? If you have doubts do an information request to the transit agency.

    The article largely conflates and focuses on the loss of the JobLines Routes versus what has most recently been announced, the cuts of freeway flyers etc.

    While I’m a firm supporter of metropolitan transit, fewer than 100 people per day rode the “Joblines” routes outside of Milwaukee County while the outside portion was roughly half the route, a HUGE operational subsidy.

  4. There’s 3 state policies that are basically killing off the county governments. 1. There’s a revenue sharing formula that’s intended to send income tax dollars back to the counties. The state of Wisconsin decided to freeze that payment over a decade ago at great recession-levels when corporate profits & incomes were low. As the recovery has happened, the counties haven’t been able to participate in that. 2. Property rates got locked in similarly and can only be changed based on a complex formula. Basically they can’t be raised. 3. The public has gone out & passed voter referendum to increase the sales tax, that’s been continuously blocked by the State.

    At the same time that revenue is locked in at basically 2007 levels, costs continue to naturally rise, while more unfunded mandates keep getting pushed down. If it continues at this rate, local government in Wisconsin won’t even exist in generation. Transit is just one of several local programs being cut to the bone.

  5. The main problem is that a gerrymandered, corrupt state legislature is stuffed with corrupt Republicans despite the majority of voters voting for Democrats. The corrupt Republicans also stuffed the state Supreme Court with corrupt Republicans under the previous governor, so that the court would approve the undemocratic gerrymandering.

    They can’t gerrymander the governor’s election, but the criminal Republican Party insists on stealing the legislative elections. Only when they go to the prison cells they belong in will things get fixed. But that won’t happen until a large enough percentage of Wisconsinites get really mad at them (55% isn’t enough, it’ll have to be over 65%)

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