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Lawsuit Prompts Funding of City Buses Out to Suburbs

Money is tied to $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange upgrade settlement

May. 28, 2014
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The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) has agreed to provide $13.5 million for buses originating in Milwaukee’s central city that lead to job and retail centers in the western suburbs.

The three new bus routes are part of a legal settlement the DOT struck with those who alleged that the state has shortchanged transit for years, creating an adverse impact on city residents, minority communities and bus riders who don’t use the freeway system.

Those critics—the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates—won big in federal court a year ago, when U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman found that the DOT hadn’t fully considered the social and environmental impacts of the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange reconstruction project, which doesn’t include enhanced public transit service. Although the DOT had used a 2006 Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) document that recommended upgrading highways, it didn’t comply with the same plan’s request to double the amount of public transit in the region by 2035. The state has cut funding for transit instead.

Adelman presided over the mediation sessions, which resulted in the soon-to-be-released settlement. The agreement includes $11.5 million over four years to establish bus routes to the suburbs during the Zoo Interchange reconstruction, as well as $2 million for services to boost ridership. All of the money will come from the federal government.

The funds will only be provided during the next four years, since they’re linked to reducing congestion during the Zoo Interchange project. But the plaintiffs are highlighting the settlement’s effect on regional and racial disparities. One UW-Milwaukee study found that more than 40,000 jobs at 1,700 employers became inaccessible by the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) as a result of funding cuts between 2001 and 2007.

MICAH’s Rev. Willie Brisco told a Milwaukee County board meeting last Thursday that the parties looked at where federal dollars were being spent and tried to address disparities in the agreement.

“The Zoo freeway, right now, will represent people with cars,” Brisco said. “People who have affluence and drive in and out of the city of Milwaukee. We are representing an entire community that doesn’t have access to that transportation. Most cities our size have subways, trains, that connect the buses, that connects to outlying areas. We are light-years behind in that area.”

The new routes would allow city residents to get to job and commercial centers in the suburbs. Route 279 will run along Fond du Lac Avenue to job and retail centers in Menomonee Falls and begin on Aug. 24. The details of two additional bus lines—one routed along Appleton Avenue to Germantown, another that will target Brookfield Square and New Berlin job centers—are still being finalized.

The Milwaukee County board signed off on the plan last week to allow the county to receive the federal funds.


Jursik: ‘A Hell of a Way to Fund Transit’

In two hearings before the board, the transit advocates praised the agreement, but noted that the $13.5 million is a small step toward creating a more balanced, regional transportation system. They said that city residents, who are more likely to not have a driver’s license than suburban residents, are cut off from jobs that are created in industrial parks in the suburbs. The state has a responsibility to provide access to those jobs, they said, and enhance regional cooperation.

“We see this as a great opportunity to increase jobs, and also to increase relationships,” said Dr. Patricia McManus of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. “It doesn’t work well in our communities if we don’t talk back and forth to each other. We need to start doing this better for the benefit of everyone. I think these routes and this suit were targeted for inner city north, but obviously, it’ll serve everybody. Anybody can get on this route and get a job.”

Rev. Brisco of MICAH told the board the money—which he called “a drop in the bucket”—was welcome but long overdue.

“We cannot have Milwaukee surrounded by suburbs of influence and we are sitting in the middle of this hub as an institution that is impoverished and is lacking all of these resources,” Brisco said. “These things have to work both ways. We have to convince the outlying counties that this benefits them also.”

Supervisors, who have struggled to fund transit in the face of years of state cuts and two county executives who have had weak support for transit, also praised the agreement, but were concerned about what would happen when the settlement funds run out in four years.

Attorney Dennis Grzezinski of Midwest Environmental Advocates said that he hoped that the routes were so successful that riders and employers would push for additional funding when the money runs out.

“It seems to me that spending the money and providing the services for these four years is a plus, and at worst, the community goes back to where it is without the money,” Grzezinski said. “Hopefully, we’ve done something that changes the world sufficiently so that we are in a better place to find additional funding in four years.”

Also discussed was the continuing disparity of freeway funding over public transportation options.

“The benefits of the expressway are going to last for the next 25 years,” said Supervisor John Weishan. “I think the parallel track would have its benefits to the transit system last 25 years, not four years.”

Supervisor Pat Jursik also hailed the agreement and hoped that funding could be found to provide access to job centers in Oak Creek. She also warned that new SEWRPC data provided a gloomy picture for transportation funding around the state. And Gov. Scott Walker hasn’t taken the recommendation of a task force chaired by DOT Secretary Mark Gottleib that suggested raising revenues for all modes of transportation, including raising the gas tax.

“Yes, we are going to have a problem in four years but we’re going to have a problem much greater than just funding this new route,” Jursik said. “We are going to have tremendous problems in Milwaukee County with regard to the financial picture. We are not collecting sufficient revenues to take care of what we have now. If we don’t start addressing this, it’s going to continue to get worse.”

In a statement released after the board’s vote on Thursday, Jursik admonished the state for its shortsighted transportation strategy.

“This is a hell of a way to fund transit,” Jursik wrote of the lawsuit. “Providing a transportation infrastructure should be a primary concern of state and local government. With the county’s hands tied, we are now letting community partners fight for equity in the courts. Funding sources for all of our transportation needs must be addressed lest Wisconsin fall even further behind.”


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