Transit System will eliminate routes to balance budget

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Facing state budget cuts of 10 percent, the Milwaukee County Transit system plans to eliminate some popular routes, including the 30 Route. Photo by Brittany McGrail/brittany.mcgrail@marquette.edu

Due to continuing budget challenges, the Milwaukee County Transit System has recommended a historic 12.5 percent service reduction for 2012.

The 2012-2013 state budget passed this summer reduces state aid to MCTS by $6.8 million a year, which is 10 percent of its funding, according to a press release from MCTS. Subsequently, MCTS projected it will need to cut as much as $9.8 million in bus services to make up for the cut and lost passenger revenue.

The reduction in service would result in the system’s largest restructuring in its 150-year history, with changes to affect nearly all routes.

Key elements of the proposal include eliminating all Summerfest, Brewers, State Fair and special event transportation, as well as seven other traditional routes. There are also plans to restructure and reduce frequency to routes, including the student-popular 30 Sherman-Wisconsin. The 12 Teutonia-Hampton and the 23 Fond du Lac Avenue buses will also be affected.

Harold Mester, public information manager for the Milwaukee County Board, said the changes are not final but services will definitely be cut.

Mester said county supervisors will have to decide how important transit is to Milwaukee before they make the final decision.

Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit Now — a non-profit organization providing local, regional and public transportation and resources — said MCTS is in a “vicious circle of declining ridership and funding.”

She said disinvesting in the transit system would not solve the problem because when there are fewer routes, there are fewer riders and less revenue to be made.

“Unfortunately, the last eight to 10 years of cuts put us in a poor position to be able to handle a 10 percent cut in transit aid,” Thomas said.

Lee Holloway, chairman of the county board of supervisors, will present the final budget and changes on Sept. 29.

Despite its faltering, the system is not inefficient, Thomas said.

Thomas said the transit system is actually very cost effective compared to others across the country. She also pointed out that MCTS has the lowest administration costs nationwide, along with a very high fare-box return.

Mester said Milwaukee is experiencing this financial trouble because MCTS has no dedicated source of funding. Most cities have a sales tax in which revenues go directly to the transit system.

In 2008, residents voted in favor of an advisory referendum to increase the sales tax to fund the transit system. But the only entity that can create a sales tax is the state government, which did not pass the legislation.

Denise Williams, a food service worker at the Straz Tower Dining Hall, takes the 23 bus to and from work every day. Under the current proposal, the 23 will have certain segments eliminated from its route, along with a decreased frequency.

Williams said she will not worry about the decreased frequency as long as the 23 remains in service.

“All I need to do is get home,” she said.

Although Milwaukee is struggling, public transit is thriving nationally. In the last five years, transit ridership increased four percent, according the Public Transportation Association.

It also succeeds in the rest of Wisconsin. Ridership outside Milwaukee increased by 7 percent in the last five years, while in-city ridership decreased by 20 percent to an all-time low of 37.5 million, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Thomas said this is due to cities putting more money into transit and adding buses, trains and other services.

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