Public Policy Forum Blog

Expanding express bus services in the Milwaukee area

Last week, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) announced $39 million in awards for transportation projects throughout the state that would positively affect air quality, including $17 million for Milwaukee County to add several new express bus routes. One of those new routes is the 10x, which we discussed in Getting to Work, our December 2013 report on public transit access to suburban Milwaukee job hubs. Route 10x is likely to begin operating in 2015, providing express service between UWM and Brookfield Square.

The award announcement prompted us to reexamine the Milwaukee County Transit System’s plan for the 10x. The new route is part of a package of service modifications designed primarily to improve bus travel between UWM, downtown Milwaukee, and the intersection at 35th and Wisconsin, which is the busiest transit corridor in the region. The 10x will provide a high volume of passengers with more frequent and modestly faster service through the east-west corridor, though travel times for passengers traveling between downtown Milwaukee and Brookfield Square will only improve by about five minutes.

While the new 10x express route will not drastically improve travel times for reverse commuters and other long-distance travelers, it complements the growing network of express bus routes in Milwaukee County. Many north-south bus routes currently traverse Wisconsin Ave. where the 10x will travel, including the express BlueLine and GreenLine that began operating in 2012. In addition, two other express routes receiving grants last week from the DOT will intersect with the 10x: one providing service along North and South 27th Street and the other serving N. Sherman Blvd.

We also reexamined the potential of an 80x – another express route we modeled in Getting to Work. The 80x is only an idea for now, but if it were developed in the future, it could create a north-south transit “spine,” providing express service from downtown Milwaukee north to Mequon and south to Oak Creek. As our new new interactive map shows, numerous other routes would feed into the 80x, improving travel times for many residents traveling between the city and the suburbs. In fact, it appears that 36 of the Milwaukee County Transit System’s 52 routes (69%) would intersect with the 80x. The planned 10x and 30x express routes also would connect with the 80x.

As Milwaukee County seeks to maintain and expand express bus services, a key obstacle is funding. The federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program is the primary funding source for the three express routes that started in 2012 (RedLine, BlueLine, and GreenLine) and the three routes planned for 2015 (10x, 30x, and 27x), but CMAQ only supports new transit service for up to three years.

Consequently, MCTS will have to find other ways to finance the continued operation of the RedLine, BlueLine, and GreenLine in 2015, just as they are launching the 10x, 30x, and 27x. For an 80x to be developed using CMAQ funds, MCTS would have to wait until the next funding cycle in 2018. Once again, it appears that the key to preserving and expanding express bus services in Milwaukee County – which is one of the few system improvements to be implemented in recent years – will be a sustainable solution to MCTS’ funding challenges.

Joe Peterangelo