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As Funding Wanes, Bus Routes Connecting Milwaukeeans With Suburban Jobs May Disappear

Ann-Elise Henzl

Advocacy groups and some Milwaukee residents who work in the suburbs are trying to save two Milwaukee County Transit System bus routes, known as the JobLines. The funding source for the routes is set to dry up at the end of the year.

Routes 61 and 6 were created four years ago to take workers from nine urban zip codes to jobs in suburbs and industrial parks. Route 6 runs from Capitol Drive to Moorland Road and south through several New Berlin industrial parks. Route 61 takes riders from Appleton Avenue to a business district in Menomonee Falls.

Credit Milwaukee County Transit System
JobLines' Route 61 goes from Appleton Avenue in Milwaukee to Menomonee Falls.

Proponents of the service held a news conference in the fall of 2016 to promote the JobLines. At the time, Antonishia Davis, a young Milwaukee mother who worked at FedEx in New Berlin, said: "I would actually really spend a lot of money, I think, if I had to pay people gas to get here.”

Davis said the JobLines route was affordable - $2.25 or $1.75 with an M•CARD. She said another plus was that it makes limited stops. "Any other bus route, I think, that stops at every stop would be two to two-and-a-half hours to get here, and they kind of sum it up into an hour, hour-and-a-half at most."

The JobLines routes were created in 2014, as the result of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by MICAH, or Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. They successfully argued that the state Department of Transportation discriminated against communities of color in the Zoo Interchange project by not including improvements to public transit.

Now, MICAH and the Black Health Coalition are fighting to keep the routes alive, as funding is expected to run out at the end of the year. Brendan Conway of Milwaukee County Transit Services says that once the money dries up, the county would have to come up with $2.8 million a year, if it were to keep the routes going.

“We don’t have that money just laying around," he says. "It would have to go from reducing service somewhere else or cutting a route or be or taking bus service away from someone and moving it there. That’s not to say it can’t be done or it won’t be done, but it’s just figuring out how it gets done. You obviously want to be able to serve the most people the most efficiently."

Conway says that one important metric to measure efficiency is passenger-per-bus-hour, or how many passengers are using the bus on average per hour. "Our average passenger per bus hour for a regular route is 23.5, the Route 6 averages five passengers per bus hour, and the Route 61 averages is 11 passengers per bus hour," he says. 

Credit Milwaukee County Transit System
JobLines' Route 6 travels from Capitol Drive to Moorland Road and south through several New Berlin industrial parks

There are ideas percolating if, for instance, Route 6 couldn’t be re-funded. Conway says that the Gold Line runs a bus to Brookfield Square Mall every 15-20 minutes, every day of the week. He says it’s a fast, efficient route. “Maybe it would make sense for Waukesha County to pick it up from there and run a shuttle or a bus that goes from Brookfield Square Mall down Moorland to serve some of those businesses where people are going."

Brian Engelking, transit manager for the City of Waukesha, agrees that Conway's idea may be more realistic for Route 6. He says he's not the one making the decision, but he has been monitoring the routes. "We're always going to be supportive of additional service to other communities. But we have to make sure they're efficiently run if Waukesha County is going to be funding the service that there's enough ridership to justify the expense."

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb says he supports the JobLines concept. “I think it’s important that we maintain successful transit routes that connect workers to jobs the way the JobLines have done,” he says.

But Lipscomb adds, “We have to acknowledge that all routes are essentially in competition for scarce transit funding. There’s constant re-evaluation of which lines are most successful. The best opportunity would be to get additional State funding, and it’s probably time to talk about regional cooperation.”

Peter Skopec, who is with WISPIRG, or Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, believes it’s up to the state to prioritize transit – not highways. And he says if the JobLines routes aren’t getting enough passengers that doesn’t mean they should end.

Skopec says even five passengers per hour is worthwhile. “It’s five people that are connected to jobs. It’s an option to continue expanding service that attracts more ridership. I think we could do more to make sure that ridership continues to increase on those routes as well. We think these routes should really be maintained."

Michael Pyritz, the regional communication manager for the South Eastern Wisconsin Department of Transportation, says that the Department of Workforce Development is the lead agency on this issue. He pointed WUWM to this comment from the Wisconsin Department of Administration on the topic:

The state is committed to finding transportation solutions to accommodate the job growth coming to Southeastern Wisconsin. Governor Walker recently asked the DWD to allocate funding to implement a multi-county transportation plan through partnerships with local governments and the Department of Transportation to incentivize coordination of transit services and reduce route gaps.

The organizations trying to save the JobLines are planning a number of actions, including a community rally next month.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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