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Some Milwaukee Suburbs Want More Mass Transit, Amid A History Of Race and Political Controversies

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Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
A Milwaukee County Transit System bus reaches the stop on the west side of Brookfield Square, where riders can transfer to a Waukesha bus that goes west on Bluemound Road.

Some suburban mayors are asking for more mass transit services from Milwaukee County to help businesses in their cities. But a Milwaukee leader said there also needs to be more discussion about race.

The Regional Transit Leadership Council, which brings together local politicians and business executives, held a transportation forum in Brookfield this past Tuesday.

Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto told the audience that he'd like to see the Bus Rapid Transit – a faster and more frequent electric bus system now being constructed from downtown Milwaukee to the Regional Medical Center – expanded to Bluemound Road in Brookfield.

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Chuck Quirmbach
Work continues on the BRT platforms on the west side of Milwaukee County, including here, at the intersection of 94th street and Bluemound.

Ponto said the BRT should go all the way to Waukesha, because Brookfield residents can't fill all the entry-level restaurant, retail and hotel jobs along the highway.

"We need to have people coming in from Waukesha, people coming in from Milwaukee County," Ponto said. "A lot of [employees] for entry-level positions do not have their own automobile or a reliable automobile and need to rely on public transportation. And right now, I know public transportation takes a long time."

Milwaukee County and Waukesha currently collaborate on traditional bus service along Bluemound with a transfer point at Brookfield Square.

To the south, Franklin Mayor Steve Olson said businesses in his city's huge industrial park are looking for workers but have no mass transit to offer.

"We hear constantly about where do we get employees and how do we get 'em here," Olson said. "That problem is going to be exacerbated by another 650 new jobs that's going to be announced in a month or so."

Olson said he's having talks with the Milwaukee County Transit System. He said he's also working on what's called the "last mile" problem in transportation, which partly refers to the distance between where transit service ends and the job site.

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Chuck Quirmbach
One of the panels at the Regional Transportation Leadership Council event included (left to right): moderator Kathy Ehley, Franklin Mayor Steve Olson, Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly, Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, and Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto.

While politicians – in mostly white communities – asking for more mass transit is a change compared to decades ago, Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson said one challenge has been getting cooperation between Democrats in Milwaukee and Republicans in the outlying areas.

Johnson said race has been another traditional hurdle in connecting diverse Milwaukee to the white suburbs.

"We desperately have got to get over the concerns we have about somebody – just because they have a different skin tone than us," Johnson said.

Johnson said he's also concerned about the so-called "first mile" issues, helping people get from their home to a transit route.

One other sticking point is paying for transit system expansion. With conservatives blocking the creation of a Regional Transit Authority that could levy a tax to support transit – or have higher fares – Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said maybe it's time for businesses to provide more help.

"Municipalities, county government, the state and federal government have put all their money into the road beds, the off-ramps, maintenance and all that," Reilly said. "I think there's a great argument to be made, that just from a matter of fairness, the private sector has to step in and start helping for these type of issues that are 'first mile' and 'last mile.'"

Local officials said making it easier for people to go to a job can be an investment in reducing crime and improving neighborhoods.

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