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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

Deep Cuts Could Hit Milwaukee’s Bus System

But could a sales tax rescue local transit?

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Can you imagine a Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) without its Freeway Flyer routes?

That may materialize in Milwaukee County’s 2010 budget if the bus system doesn’t get an infusion of cash.

“We’re at a point where there aren’t any easy cuts,” said MCTS Managing Director Anita Gulotta-Connelly.

The 10-route Freeway Flyer, which connects the suburbs and Downtown, Route 219 (the Oak Creek Shuttle), and Route 68 (serving the North Shore suburbs and Cardinal Stritch University) could be eliminated, Connelly said. Other routes may be shortened, and late-night service on some routes may be dropped altogether.

The system is seriously considering cutting back on these routes and services—and imposing a 25-cent transfer fee—because Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker asked the system to cut $3.8 million from its budget to help make up for the county’s projected $90 million budget shortfall next year.

Walker, a Republican candidate for governor, has pledged not to raise the property tax next year, so departmental heads have been asked to make deep cuts in their budgets. He will submit his budget to the Milwaukee County Board at the end of September, when the board will have the opportunity to review it and make changes.

At the same time MCTS is being pressured to cut its operating budget, the system is seeing a 10% increase in demand for its paratransit van service, Transit Plus, which transports seniors and individuals with disabilities. That 10% increase has added about $3 million in costs to the system’s budget, Connelly said. “In order to continue those services we’ve kind of squeezed the fixed route system because we can’t just keep expanding,” Connelly said. “We have a fixed amount of dollars and we have to live within our budget.”

Stimulus Funds Help to Fill the 2010 Shortfall

But as dire as MCTS’s financial picture seems, it could be worse.

The system will receive $25.6 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) federal stimulus funds, which will allow it to purchase 45 new buses in the coming year, replace the fare box system and install a stop-enunciator system to announce major transfer corners and stops on each bus route.

“The ARRA funds helped us significantly with putting together our budget for 2010,” Connelly said.

Yet the system needs to buy another 100 buses in the following two years to keep its fleet up to date, as well as come up with funds to operate the system after the current budget cycle. “By 2011 there will be a significant gap between the funds that are available for the system and what Milwaukee County had traditionally put in to support the system,” Connelly said.

Options To Come in the Fall

Milwaukee County voters had approved a new source of funding for MCTS last fall—a portion of a 1-cent sales tax, which would allow transit, the parks and other county services to be taken off of the property tax rolls.

A version of that proposal—a half-cent sales tax for transit only, to be levied by a Milwaukee County Transit Authority—made its way into the state budget.

But Gov. Jim Doyle stripped it from the budget. Instead, Doyle approved a three-county regional transit authority (RTA) for southeastern Wisconsin so that the long-debated Kenosha- Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail system could move forward. But that did nothing to help the immediate needs of the Milwaukee County Transit System. The RTA is to be funded through an increase of the rental car fee, although the Federal Transit Administration sees that funding option as unstable.

But the half-cent transit-supporting sales tax idea isn’t dead, nor are RTAs. Doyle is expected to present legislation this fall that could provide local communities with more options for funding local and regional transit.

Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner said Doyle is working on a regional solution to Milwaukee’s transit problems and hopes to have something to announce soon. But Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, said that one idea being floated is to allow local communities to form RTAs and levy a half-cent sales tax to support transit.

Not only would that help communities that didn’t receive authorization for RTAs—the Fox Valley and La Crosse have shown some interest in the concept—but it would also provide some relief for Milwaukee County’s transit woes.

“You could take care of Milwaukee County transit’s immediate needs and you could fund the operation of the KRM with a half-cent sales tax,” Hiniker said. Legislation may require a public referendum before the tax is imposed, Hiniker noted.

Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, said that while a half-cent sales tax is an obvious solution, a sole funding source isn’t the only option for transit. For example, Portland’s well-run transit system doesn’t rely on a sales tax, because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax. “They have a dozen different funding sources,” Thomas said.

MCTS’s Connelly said a half-cent sales tax would allow the system to be taken off the property tax rolls while investing in new buses, as well as restoring routes that have been cut in the past. “There have been a lot of things discussed,” Connelly said of various funding options, including Walker’s pitch to privatize the airport and channel funds to local transit. “Our bottom line is whatever is done is going to have to be acceptable to the community.”