Does the Milwaukee County Bus System Have a Long-Term Future?
Failure of RTA legislation also dooms commuter rail
supporters had worked hard for years to find secure, dedicated funding for the
cash-strapped countywide bus system, which depends on federal and state monies
plus local property taxes and fare-box revenue for its funding.
objections of Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, in November 2008 county
voters approved an advisory referendum to increase the sales tax 1% to cover
the costs of transit, parks, cultural assets and emergency medical services.
Those entire line items in the budget would then be taken off of the property
tax rolls, providing relief to county homeowners. Furthermore, since about 30%
of the sales tax collected in Milwaukee
County comes from
non-county residents, such as tourists and residents of surrounding counties
who work or play in the county, it spreads the costs to non-county residents in
a fair manner.
But Milwaukee County had to gain the state
Legislature’s approval before the tax shift could be implemented.
After a series
of fits and starts, a half-cent sales tax measure to support Milwaukee’s bus system worked its way through
the state Legislature, but the governor vetoed it.
to create a Milwaukee County Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which would
collect and distribute the sales tax to MCTS, failed in April when the state
Legislature closed its doors for the year without taking a final vote on the
advocates are asking if the system will survive and are requesting that Gov.
Jim Doyle call a special session to revive the RTA bill, which would also
create RTAs in other parts of the state.
still time to right this wrong,” said Harold Mester, spokesman for County Board
Chair Lee Holloway.
A call to
Doyle’s office seeking comment on a potential RTA special session was not
Bill Now Includes a Re-Vote Requirement
special session on the RTA is not a magic bullet for Milwaukee’s bus system.
First, the Milwaukee delegation is
not united in supporting the measure. In Milwaukee’s
caucus in the Assembly, Democrats Peggy Krusick, David Cullen and Tony
Staskunas did not support the original bill, saying that the 2008 referendum
did not pass in their districts. Republicans Jeff Stone of Greendale, Mark
Honadel of South Milwaukee and Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa did not support
the original bill, either.
And while Milwaukee’s business
community championed the bill, its members and lobbyists could not persuade
their traditional Republican supporters to vote for a sales tax increase before
an election, no matter how necessary it may be.
Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, said the public’s support for mass
transit was so strong that it cut across party lines, demographics and
think anyone’s seen this kind of support from the state and such a broad
spectrum of business and labor working together, and environmentalists and
developers,” Thomas said.
strong public support, many legislators were still afraid to vote for a tax
shift. However, during a series of late-night votes, the Assembly finally
approved an amendment that endorsed a transit bill that would require Milwaukee
County to hold a binding referendum on raising the sales tax a half-cent to
support transit. That’s because Milwaukee
County voters approved
the 1% sales tax increase to cover a wide range of entities, and amendment
supporters argued that the new bill—of the Assembly’s own making—didn’t match
what county residents had voted on in 2008.
Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), said that her
organization did not advocate for a re-vote on the sales tax.
language we worked on didn’t include that,” Taylor said.
amendment had lukewarm support from many transit supporters.
Milwaukee Rep. Christine Sinicki said she didn’t support the amendment, but
would consider it if that’s what it took to pass an RTA for Milwaukee County.
“If we could
get agreement that we could get this done with the amendment, I would probably
consider supporting it,” Sinicki said. “But right now I don’t support it
because I don’t think we’re going to get it done.”
the timing of the vote—during the final days of a session preceding a big
election in the fall—probably doomed it.
this up so late in the session,” Sinicki said. “Once you get to that point all
anyone is focused on is the elections. Perhaps if we had taken it up earlier it
might have had an easier chance of getting through.”
Senate doesn’t seem especially interested in taking up the RTA bill, either.
Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker has said that without Republican support,
the bill would not pass.
GMC’s Taylor said a special session wasn’t the only way to
create a Milwaukee
The next governor could add it to his budget, to be approved by both houses of
the state Legislature.
of sales tax support for MCTS is also a huge setback for the proposed
Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line, since the Federal Transit
Administration wants to see strong, dedicated funding for local transit systems
that would feed into the commuter rail line. The Southeastern Regional Transit
Authority (SERTA) had been approved in the last state budget, while funding for
commuter rail would come from an increase in the rental car fee, which is seen
as a weak, unstable funding source for a rail system.
County Supervisor Michael Mayo, chair of the county board’s Transportation,
Public Works and Transit Committee and a member of the SERTA, said both systems
are up in the air right now.
“We have to
go back to the drawing board to ask how we can serve Milwaukee County
residents and make sure that the [transit] system can keep going, and find out
how we can get KRM funding,” Mayo said. “And we have to talk to those who would
not work with us the first time to ask how we can get these votes.”
will meet on May 17 to discuss how to move forward with its application.
the Buses Rolling
state Legislature takes action and allows the county to increase the sales tax,
local funding for MCTS is still on the property tax rolls. Jack Takerian,
acting director of the Department of Transportation and Public Works, told the Shepherd that the administration plans
to add $2.1 million in 2011 to the $19.1 million provided to MCTS in the
property tax levy in 2010. Walker,
however, has said that a $3 million increase is in the works.
said that it was still early in the process and that much could change before
September, when Walker
would submit his proposed budget to the county board.
tell you much more than that there are no planned route adjustments, no planned
fare increases,” Takerian said. “But we’ve got a long time between now and when
the board has a chance to deliberate the budget. I can’t tell you today how
things are going to be in September.”
Also in the
works is a proposal to add Walker’s favored bus rapid transit (BRT) line, a
sort of express bus line within MCTS that would run along Fond du Lac Avenue,
and possibly another line running to the County Grounds on the West Side.
said that the plan is to purchase 20 electric-hybrid buses and provide
on-street amenities along the line.
Dranzik, administration director for the Department of Transportation and
Public Works, said the administration would submit a proposal to the county
board to use $36 million in federal funds to establish the BRT. Those funds are
the county portion of a $91 million pot to be split between the county and the
city to improve local transit.
using all of the funds for the BRT was the “first option,” and that the
administration was trying to be flexible if the board had other plans.
He said the
county would have to match about $6.5 million for the line.
we bond for that,” Dranzik said.
Holloway’s spokesman, said comments made by Walker indicated that he may be backing off
his plan to use all of the federal funds for the BRT. Instead, Mester said, Walker may try to use a
portion of those funds to purchase new buses for the traditional bus lines,
which would free up funds for operating the system.
not a long-term strategy,” Mester said.
Before Walker’s announcement about the $3 million increase,
Transit NOW’s Kerry Thomas predicted that Walker
would find some way to fund the buses for now without the RTA, which he had
“I think he
wants to show that we don’t need an RTA,” Thomas said. “He wants to show that
it isn’t necessary to have this funding for buses.”
spokeswoman, did not return a call seeking comment for this article.