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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

Walker's Cuts Hit Milwaukee County Transit

Access to suburban and city jobs will plummet

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Gov. Scott Walker said he'd focus like a laser beam on jobs.

But his 10% funding cut for transit is doing anything but help workers get to their jobs on the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS).

According to a new study by Joel Rast at UW-Milwaukee's Center for Economic Development, a minimum of 13,553 jobs and almost a thousand employers will no longer be accessible to bus riders if MCTS's proposed budget is implemented and routes are cut.

That's on top of the more than 40,000 jobs that have been put out of the reach of the bus system since 2001, when Walker served as Milwaukee County executive.

Walker's 10% cut for transit translates to a reduction of $6.9 million in state funding for MCTS. Walker's cut is a heavy blow because the state is the system's largest funding source, accounting for about 40% of the system's funding.

MCTS spokeswoman Jackie Janz called the 10% cut “unprecedented” and said the system would have to cut an additional $9 million in spending to make up for the funding decrease.

“We're projecting a much higher deficit for next year than we'd like to see,” Janz said.

Cuts Hit All Segments of the County

If the proposed cuts are implemented, 12 bus routes would be eliminated and at least 16 additional routes would be trimmed or realigned. On the chopping block are the Freeway Flyer service, special event shuttles and regular routes in all segments of the county.

The result is a loss of access to 997 employers.

Rast's study pointed out, for example, that cutting North Side Route 68 would eliminate the loss of service to 339 employers and 3,803 jobs. Gone would be transportation to Cardinal Stritch University, businesses on Port Washington Road and the suburbs of Fox Point and Bayside.

Another hard-hit area is the Glendale Industrial Park, which serves 90 businesses—including Johnson Controls, the W.H. Brady Co. and Actuant—that employ more than 2,100 workers.

Rast told the Shepherd that low-income city residents who don't own cars would be most affected by the transit cuts, since suburbanites who do own cars or who live near job-rich sites could still get to work. City job-seekers likely will be less inclined to apply for suburban jobs if they know that it will be impossible to commute to work on the bus.

“Not having transit service to a large concentration of jobs is an issue in itself,” Rast said of the Glendale cuts. “But not only that, these are the sorts of manufacturing jobs, the kinds of jobs that city residents, particularly minority and lower-income residents, really need access to. These are living-wage jobs, and we don't have many of those in Milwaukee County for people who may not have a lot of formal education.”

Although more than 13,000 jobs might be cut off from access to buses, Janz said that MCTS planners wanted to ensure that access to major job corridors were preserved in the shrunken system. Janz said that MCTS also wanted to retain bus routes in areas where residents didn't have access to cars or other modes of transportation, and that first-shift service would still be available on some routes facing the elimination of nighttime service.

Janz said that Freeway Flyers could be eliminated because riders typically have cars and could still commute to work Downtown.

She said that MCTS understood that its proposed cuts would be painful, but that there was no other place to trim to meet its budget.

“Any of the cuts we make right now will be detrimental,” Janz said.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said that he understood the importance of public transit's link to job creation and retention.

“I think this is a great report that helps illustrate the point we've been trying to make and why I tried so hard to get the state to reverse its transit cuts,” Abele wrote in an email to the Shepherd. “We are working as hard as we can to reduce the negative impact these cuts would have on jobs and are doing everything we can to try and compensate for the $55 million deficit we have inherited.”

Still a Work in Progress

Janz cautioned that the suggested cuts have not been finalized. Although MCTS sent its budget to Abele, he doesn't have to include it verbatim in the county budget he'll release on Sept. 29.

Even then, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will have a chance to find more funding for MCTS when it is able to make changes to the budget, as it has in the past.

But that won't be easy when the county itself is taking a heavy financial hit. It's estimated that the county is facing a $51 million to $55 million deficit in 2012, and MCTS funding comes from the county's shrinking coffers. Even worse, transit isn't a mandated service, so—technically, at least—the county isn't required to provide adequate funding for it, no matter how important bus service is to the county's economic vitality.

Bu there may be some bright spots on the horizon. Abele and Milwaukee County Board Chair Lee Holloway have applied for $15 million in federal funds—to be distributed by the state—for three new express bus routes, which could help offset other cuts in the system. Holloway spokesman Harold Mester said the chairman was confident that the Walker administration would release the funds for the county, since Walker had shown support for express bus routes when he served as county executive.

Yet another funding source could come through to preserve routes typically used to transport city workers to suburbs, including the job-rich Glendale Industrial Park.

Janz said that raising fares to increase revenue could also be in the works.

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