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Will the Go Pass Survive?

Advocates lobby Abele to save free rides for seniors and the disabled

Sep. 13, 2016
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The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has eliminated the highly popular Go Pass in its requested 2017 budget, saying it will drain the system of $4.4 million next year.

But advocates for the almost 30,000 older and disabled Milwaukeeans who use the free passes say the successful program should remain in place, even if it does need some tinkering.

“The Go Pass is worth its weight in gold,” Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Barbara Beckert, who co-chairs the Make It Work Milwaukee Coalition, told the Shepherd. “You’re giving people a fighting chance to succeed.”

Overall, MCTS is projecting a passenger revenue deficit of $7.1 million in 2016.

Nationally, transit ridership is down because of cheap gas, but Milwaukee is also seeing declining ridership due in part to Milwaukee Public Schools students riding yellow buses as well as the free Go Pass. MCTS proposes returning to $1.10 discounted fares for seniors and the disabled next year.

That would be a big mistake, advocates say. 

They’re trying to persuade Abele to keep the program, even though he’s been lukewarm at best to it. They say that the Go Pass is essential to the success of the Abele administration’s downsizing of the mental health hospital, as well as his ending chronic homelessness initiative. Individuals with extra challenges need extra support services, such as easy access to transit, to live independently and successfully.

“The Go Pass allows people to have that normalcy and to be able to have a social life, to get to their medical appointments, to see their family, to get to food pantries and to be able to have a quality of life that they could not have without the Go Pass,” said Mary Neubauer, a member of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board and the Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force. “People end up being locked up in the apartments and that adds to the exacerbation of depression and other mental illnesses. They become isolated.” 

The advocates presented Abele with a lengthy memo outlining the many benefits of the Go Pass, as well as testimony from agencies that work with those who use the Go Pass. They noted that most of the Go Pass users are low income and would struggle to pay the $1.10 fare if Abele reinstates it. 

“Instead, they will wait until their medical or mental health needs reach a crisis level and will engage emergency providers—ambulances, police squads—to meet their transportation needs,” wrote Dani Koehler, homeless outreach specialist for Community Advocates Homeless Outreach Nursing Center. “This is dramatically more costly to us as a community.” 

Possible Solutions 

The advocates say that they are open to some changes in the program, perhaps by only offering the Go Pass to low-income seniors and disabled Milwaukeeans.

Make It Work co-chair Tom Hlavacek, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Southeastern Wisconsin, warned that some eligibility tests might be too cumbersome to administer.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially if we’re adding levels of bureaucracy,” Hlavacek told the Shepherd.

Hlavacek suggested charging Go Pass riders a nominal fee—perhaps 25 cents a ride—or only allowing a limited number of rides per month, instead of unlimited rides. 

“We can try a quick, simple fix for now that’s not too burdensome, then explore long-term solutions,” he said. 

Abele is considering adding a vehicle registration fee to help to pay for transit, according to his spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff.

“The county executive believes strongly that we need a dedicated source of funding for transit,” Baldauff emailed. “Unfortunately, state and federal funding for transportation has been declining and the county has few options legally available to generate the revenue required to ensure we can hold fares flat, keep routes, make investments like Bus Rapid Transit, and preserve the Go Pass.”

He’ll release his proposed 2017 budget by the end of September, at which time the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will go through it line by line and amend it.

Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, who spearheaded the Go Pass, told the Shepherd that she was “shocked” by MCTS’ unwillingness to preserve the program. She said she was willing to change the program but was waiting for Abele’s proposal before commenting on specifics.

“Do we really want to balance MCTS’ budget on the backs of the elderly and disabled?” Dimitrijevic said.

Last Tuesday, in a rare meeting allowing public comment, the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board heard testimony in support of the Go Pass and its importance to the individuals served by the county’s Behavioral Health Division and other departments. 

Jeffrey Butts, a member of the Grand Avenue Club, which offers vocational and educational programs for those with a mental illness, testified that his fellow members generated $1.4 million in taxable income last year. That’s in jeopardy if they lose their Go Passes, he said. 

“We have people in the program who are totally disabled—totally disabled,” Butts said. “They rely on the Go Pass to get them from the front door to the back door to the grocery store to church to the club.” 

If the advocates wanted the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board to release money to help pay for the Go Pass, they might be too late. The all-appointee board signed off on its recommended 2017 budget in June, which was sent to Abele. Under the highly unusual provisions in Act 203, which created the board, Abele can alter the Mental Health Board’s budget, but no one else can—not the Milwaukee County supervisors or the board itself, after Abele makes his changes.

Health and Human Services Director Héctor Colón, who oversees the county’s programs for seniors, the disabled and mentally ill, declined to specifically answer the Shepherd’s questions on whether his department would help to fund the Go Pass.

“As to the Go Pass, anecdotally I am hearing that many of our clients benefit from the program and I know that that transit is important for the people we serve,” Colón emailed.

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