Funding trouble for Milwaukee transit

  • Milwaukee County's transit system has been inconveniencing patrons due to its lack of funding.
  • These inconveniences are only expected to worsen by 2010 if officials do not remedy the crisis.
  • One of the most popular proposals would raise sales tax by one percent and would use funding to replace buses and support mass transit, among other things.

Mass transit in Milwaukee County is suffering from inadequate funding, which is creating problems for the system itself and for those who rely on its services.

Consequences of delayed decision-making are expected to worsen by 2010. Many county supervisors are urging citizens to insist that elected officials act promptly.

John Weishan Jr. has been county supervisor of Milwaukee's 16th District since 2000. He said he has long supported Milwaukee's mass transit system.

Weishan said there are three major concerns regarding transit. First, Milwaukee needs to devise a dedicated funding source to stop the destruction of the transit system.

"Over the last six years, roughly 40,000 people were denied access to jobs due to reductions in transit," Weishan said. "Lines have been discontinued or cut back, and we have made opportunities out of reach for citizens."

The second major concern is overall improvement of the transit system. Weishan said roughly 30 buses reach the end of their useful cycles every year, and the county has not been able to replace them. He said the ticketing process also needs improvement.

"The third major concern is the need to expand the system so that it reaches more districts," Weishan said. "This would promote a more regional transit system."

A resolution recently passed in Milwaukee County to increase sales taxes by 1 percent. Revenue would support transit, county parks, public safety, property tax relief and various programs and services. Weishan devised the official resolution.

"We are in the process of incorporating this into the mayor's budget," he said.

Weishan said Milwaukee is not adequately represented on the Regional Transit Authority Board, and places like Racine and Kenosha have too much power over Milwaukee.

"We would be glad to join RTA if Racine and Kenosha agree to our sales tax and the use of its funding," he said.

Now, Milwaukee must see whether or not County Executive Scott Walker vetoes the tax. Weishan said Walker voted against all regional transit recommendations contained in a transcript by the governor's task force.

"In the late 1980s we received about $290 million from the federal government to improve transit in Milwaukee," Weishan said. "It requires the governor of Wisconsin, mayor of Milwaukee and county executive all agree on a transit system."

He said nothing has been agreed upon in the last 18 years. Consequently, $91.5 million remains and all other funds have been diverted into other projects.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have a functioning 21st century transit system," he said. "We need to help citizens make good economic choices and good life choices rather than narrowing their options."

Chris Larson is the supervisor of Milwaukee's 14th District. Larson was elected nine months ago, and said he has been fighting for the transit system since his election.

Larson said the transit cuts and high fares have made the system much harder for passengers to use.

"This is nothing compared to what is coming next year when we will lose a third of all transit service, including freeway fliers and all night and weekend service," Larson said.

Larson said this reduction will result in more than 100,000 additional employment opportunities to extend beyond the transit's reach.

"This could all have been fixed years ago if we switched to a dedicated sales tax like many other systems have," Larson said. "Unfortunately, we have a county executive that is opposed to any and every tax increase."

Larson said the increase in sales tax would reduce property taxes by $67 million and would replace 155 buses that are breaking down.

"If transit is important to you in your daily life, I encourage you to call your local representatives and those in Madison and let them know how you feel," Larson said.

Patricia Jursik, supervisor of Milwaukee's 8th District, said Milwaukee's buses are now 12 to 14 years old, and the system cannot continue to run without new buses.

"We have raised fares, but these fares are already some of the highest in the country," Jursik said.

She said Milwaukee County has one of the only major transit systems lacking a dedicated funding source and instead relying on the support of property tax.