As you probably know by now, the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is doomed.
Seriously! That’s not hyperbole! The agency responsible for the county’s bus system is headed for a “fiscal cliff”—a cliff it could plummet over as soon as 2025. “MCTS is facing a $26.5 million budget shortfall in 2025 due to long standing structural budget problems and the impending expiration of temporary federal COVID19 relief funding,” MCTS explains in a recent press release. “To put this shortfall in context, a $26.5 million cut would result in a 20 percent cut in service which could represent nearly one half of all routes in the system spread across Milwaukee County. These service reductions would aggravate the economic damage caused by COVID19, keeping literally millions of riders from getting to their job, school, hospital or church, and harming local (and state) businesses in the process.”
Or maybe you don’t know this? Despite MCTS raising the “fiscal cliff” alarm earlier this spring, despite the existence of a #SaveTheBus campaign, and despite ample coverage from the press, the plight of the bus hasn’t been generating a lot of noise online. (Compare this to the social media meltdown that accompanies any news related to downtown’s lil’ streetcar system.) MCTS had a total passenger ridership of more than 15.5 million in 2022. This is a big deal!
There’s a part of me that gets it. The bus is anything but sexy. The folks who depend on the bus typically aren’t folks who are terminally online, incessantly tweeting about budget shortfalls and shared revenue plans. But a county without a properly funded transit system is something we should all be concerned about. “Failing to invest in transit will have cascading, cross-sectoral ramifications for all of us,” MCTS says, “setting back the regional economy, exacerbating labor shortages, and impacting education and health outcomes. And the harm done by such drastic reductions would fall on those least able to absorb additional burdens.”
There’s also a part of me that admits MCTS hasn’t been doing itself any favors. The transition from the simple and elegant MCTS ridership app to the bloated and baffling WisGo – Powered by Umo and Sponsored By American Family Insurance app has been less than smooth. (It’s okay once you get used to it. The capped fare system is nice, but the lack of real-time tracking is frustrating.) And, buried in every glowing announcement about the (largely federally funded) East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line that will zoom back and forth from Downtown Milwaukee to Wauwatosa, is news that an existing line will be changed, downsized, or scrapped altogether. Like, the Gold Line will be put out to pasture on June 4? And catching a single bus from Downer Avenue to Downtown will no longer be a thing? Great!
Still, the main culprit in all of this is the antiquated way in which MCTS is funded. (Oh, and the budget crisis faced by Milwaukee County itself.) “Most large cities invest in their transit systems with sustainable funding, like a local sales tax, that is indexed to grow year over year,” MCTS explains. “MCTS receives local funding through a combination of property taxes and a vehicle registration fee—both of which don’t match the scale of the gap we face. Without a reliable source of local funding, the proposed transit funding cuts would cripple Milwaukee County.”
So what’s the solution? “There are a handful of possible options for the county in order to avert such a crisis,” says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “including a mixture of a reduction in bus services, increasing vehicle registration fees, allocating more of the property tax levy to MCTS, and revenue from a potential 1% countywide sales tax increase.”
The #SaveTheBus campaign doubles down on that sales tax increase: “Let the state legislature know that you support Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and the Move Forward MKE coalition to create sustainable local funding for local priorities through at least a 1 percent local sales tax.”
This will all come to a head sometime this week, when the state’s Republican lawmaker daddies—who control the fate of a city with a Democratic mayor in a state with a Democratic governor for some reason—vote on a much-talked-about shared revenue bill. In short, the bill “would give 20% of the state’s sales tax back to local communities to help pay for critical services,” says Spectrum News. “Secondly, the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County would both be allowed to raise their local sales tax to help get out from under their local pension funding shortfalls.”
An initial version of the bill contained plenty of restrictions for baby Milwaukee—”No state money for the streetcar!” being one of the most petty—though Gov. Evers has said he would veto such a bill. A bipartisan compromise bill is expected to appear this week.
So…we’ll see how it goes? In the meantime, do what you can: email the state legislature, make some noise online, and, well, ride the damn bus. Let’s save this thing while there’s still something left to save.
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