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Does the Milwaukee County Bus System Have a Long-Term Future?

Failure of RTA legislation also dooms commuter rail

May. 12, 2010
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As the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) celebrated its 150th anniversary last week, questions remain about its long-term survival and the political will to fix it.

Transit 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.

Over the 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.

Legislation 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 bill.

Now, transit 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.

“There’s 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 returned.


RTA Bill Now Includes a Re-Vote Requirement

But a 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.

Kerry 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 geography.

“I don’t 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.

Despite the 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.

Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), said that her organization did not advocate for a re-vote on the sales tax.

“The language we worked on didn’t include that,” Taylor said.

The amendment had lukewarm support from many transit supporters.

South Side 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.”

Sinicki said the timing of the vote—during the final days of a session preceding a big election in the fall—probably doomed it.

“We took 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.”

The state 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 County RTA. The next governor could add it to his budget, to be approved by both houses of the state Legislature.

“It’s not done,” Taylor said.


Killing the KRM

The demise 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.

Milwaukee 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.”

The SERTA will meet on May 17 to discuss how to move forward with its application.


Keeping the Buses Rolling

Unless the 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.

Takerian 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.

“I can’t 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.

Takerian said that the plan is to purchase 20 electric-hybrid buses and provide on-street amenities along the line.

Brian 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.

Dranzik said 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.

“Traditionally we bond for that,” Dranzik said.

Mester, 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.

“But that’s 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 opposed.

“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.”

Fran McLaughlin, Walker’s spokeswoman, did not return a call seeking comment for this article.


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