BRT is rolling. But around the curve, Milwaukee County Transit may have big fiscal problems
The battery electric bus route known as Connect 1 or BRT, started this week in Milwaukee County. But the transit system, researchers, and employment groups say they're also focused on the so-called "fiscal cliff" that the bus service faces in coming years.
Tuesday morning, a battery-powered Connect 1 bus offered a free and efficient ride from Wauwatosa to downtown Milwaukee, via Bluemound Road, Hawley Road and Wisconsin Avenue. A recording announced to passengers the upcoming crossing of 27th Street.
"Twenty-seventh Street. BRT station, Transfer to Purple Line," riders heard over the bus PA system.
More than $40 million in federal money funded the battery electric buses and more than 30 new bus stops, newly built. A sponsorship deal is keeping the Connect 1 rides free through the end of September.
That's the good news for bus riders and the transit system. System official Tom Winter said the bad news is that about $190 million in federal relief aid that sustained bus service during the COVID-19 pandemic is largely gone and the remaining money has to be used by the end of next year.
"So starting in 2025, we'll have like a $26.5 million deficit," Winter said Tuesday at a transit forum convened by the multi-modal transportation advocacy group MobiliSE.
Winter said another reason for the projected red ink is that ridership is still down from pre-pandemic levels, meaning not as much fare revenue.
He said if the financial gap can't be filled, planners are already looking at potential service cuts — maybe as much as 20% of the entire Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS.)
"If we just looked at the lowest performing routes in the system, that would be cutting about half the routes throughout the county. In terms of businesses and employers, about 2,300 businesses that employ 70,000 workers. So, pretty dramatic. Those businesses would not be along a bus route anymore under that scenario. And 125,000 people would no longer have access to a bus route — senior citizens, people with disabilities and certainly, persons of color," Winter warned.
The non-partisan research organization, Wisconsin Policy Forum, has studied what's being called the MCTS "fiscal cliff." Forum President Rob Henken said the state of Wisconsin is the largest funder of the bus system.
"The problem is that money has not increased in many, many years. Not only based on inflation, but in nominal terms," Henken said at the MobiliSE event.
Henken said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) and the Republican-controlled State Legislature might agree on more money for Milwaukee County Transit—either in direct aid or through the idea of the state allowing the county to raise its sales tax, partly to boost bus service dollars. But the tax hike is part of a controversial shared revenue proposal that Republicans this week are threatening to derail.
Another partial-gap filler, said Henken, is raising the county's vehicle registration fee a few times.
"If you did all of those what-ifs, (it) would essentially allow you to get through 2028 without having to have dramatic service cuts," Henken stated, emphasizing he was not advocating for any tax or fee hikes.
Cutting bus service is a bad idea, said Chytania Brown of the workforce development group Employ Milwaukee.
"That's a huge disruption to one's life. Because everything has been predicated on 'At this time, I get up. I catch this bus, I transfer to this one, I drop my child off either at school or day care, I have to be back at a particular time to pick up.' And so when all of that is disrupted, there's the question of, can I even continue with this job?" Brown said the event.
Brown said when employees can't get to work, businesses are affected. And the fiscal cliff facing the Transit System could also mean financial pain for the private sector.