Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Pearls: Addressing Milwaukee County's transit crisis

The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to Milwaukee County's mass transit debate.

In the wake of Governor Doyle's veto of a Milwaukee County-only transit authority with sales tax authority, the county's struggling transit system submitted a report to the County Board last week projecting huge deficits beginning in 2011, as well as significant service cuts to bridge a smaller gap in 2010. Not coincidentally, the projected budget gaps are eerily similar to those projected by the Public Policy Forum in our May 2008 report, "Milwaukee County's Transit Crisis: How did we get here, and what do we do now?"

The updated transit budget projections cite the need for an additional $11.4 million in county property tax levy in 2011, $19.9 million in 2012 and $24 million in 2013 to maintain proposed 2010 service levels and fare structures and conduct needed bus replacement over a four-year period. Our May 2008 report projected gaps of $18 million, $24 million and $21 million in the three years following the next budget (2010-2012).

Of note is that we did not factor in the receipt of $25.6 million in federal stimulus funds for new buses nor the significant service cuts proposed for 2010, and we used a three-year bus replacement schedule. The deficits projected by transit officials would be even higher than our original projections if not for those factors.

But perhaps even more indicative of the extent to which little has changed is the following passage from our 2008 report, in which we suggest the need for a "triage" approach to stabilize the system's finances and service in the short-term:

"The underlying philosophy of this approach is that while a comprehensive, dedicated funding source appears necessary to permanently address MCTS’ structural budget problems, it is uncertain when and whether this approach will actually happen...In the meantime, the data indicate it is critical to hold the line on fare increases and service cuts for at least the next two to four years to help stabilize or even begin to grow ridership, and to take other prudent steps to reduce the magnitude of a full-fledged funding crisis when significant bus purchases are required."

In light of the significant service cuts proposed for 2010 - which include the elimination of all freeway flyer service - and the continued uncertainty of a state-authorized funding solution, policymakers may wish to re-read our discussion of the need for and components of a triage strategy that could be pursued without state legislation. There are short-term strategies that local policymakers can consider on their own, if they have the will to do so.

Rob Henken