Public Policy Forum Blog

Coordination Key to Bus System Improvements

Last week, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to use $7.5 million from its debt service reserve fund for parks and transit improvements and to provide a cost-of-living salary adjustment to all County employees. Supporters cited recent budget surpluses that have allowed the reserve fund to grow to roughly $50 million; the resolution was designed to use a portion of those funds to address several perceived long-standing needs.

Legitimate concerns have been raised about the tapping of reserves for those initiatives, particularly in light of the recent discovery of an actuarial error that set the County’s required pension fund contribution for 2015 far too low.

Notwithstanding those concerns, we are encouraged by efforts to pursue enhanced transportation connections to the region’s two largest employment centers – downtown Milwaukee and the Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. However, close coordination with other County entities and local governments is essential to make those efforts a success.

The resolution calls for using $1.5 million to introduce a transit signal prioritization system in the east-west corridor, which is the busiest transit corridor in the Milwaukee area. Transit signal prioritization is a technological solution that speeds up bus service modestly by allowing buses to extend green lights and shorten red lights at busy intersections. Many transit systems around the country have used transit signal prioritization to improve on-time performance and speed up service by 5-10%.

The County Board’s plan reflects analysis from our Picking Up the Pace report, which laid out three options for enhancing transit services in the east-west corridor. Introducing transit signal prioritization was on the modest end of the spectrum, while developing a bus rapid transit (BRT) service was the most ambitious option we presented. BRT services combine many enhancements, including transit signal prioritization, to produce a bus service that can be competitive in speed with driving.

County Executive Chris Abele recently proposed developing a BRT service in the east-west corridor, and the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation currently is working with other stakeholders to explore options for doing so. If a BRT service eventually will be developed in the east-west corridor, logic would dictate that a transit signal prioritization system could represent the first step. But getting this right will require high levels of cooperation between several levels of government, as well as political cooperation between the County’s executive and legislative branches.

For example, before moving forward with a transit signal prioritization system, Milwaukee County must work with the City of Milwaukee and City of Wauwatosa, as they own and maintain the traffic signals that would need to be equipped with the new technology. Bus stop locations may need to be adjusted as well, which would require the approval of the municipalities. In the end, paying for the wide range of bus service enhancements that may make sense for our east-west corridor also will require teamwork by the County Board and County Executive, who ideally would approach the state and federal governments in tandem for financial support.

The County Board, County Executive, and the mayors of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa all have expressed support for bus system improvements in the east-west corridor. As planning efforts advance, they will all need to be at the table to produce an optimal transit strategy for the region.

Joe Peterangelo