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Lack Of 'Regional Perspective' For Milwaukee-Waukesha Transit Goes Back Decades

Markus Mainka
Rob Henken of the Wisconsin Policy Forum says there's no "silver bullet" to fixing our transit system unless we change the way we finance it.

This week, Lake Effect is exploring the end of the Milwaukee County Transit System's JobLines. Route 57 ends service this Saturday. The JobLines was put into place to transport workers from Milwaukee to jobs in Waukesha County. But this is far from the first route that has helped people travel between counties.

READ: As Milwaukee's JobLines Service Ends, What's Next?

From light rail to buses, public transportation between Milwaukee and Waukesha counties has always had a bumpy road. While industrial rail still has a strong presence in the city, our only passenger rail options are Amtrak and the new street car system - The Hop.

There was once a comprehensive street car system in Milwaukee as well as an inter-urban service that connected Milwaukee to places like Sheboygan, Racine, Kenosha, and Chicago, explains Rob Henken of the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

READ: A Look Back At Milwaukee's Original Streetcar System

In the early 1990s, Henken says, there was "serious, renewed discussion" about looking at transit from a regional perspective, instead of as individual municipalities. There was also the option of using $289 million in federal money to build a light rail system from downtown Milwaukee to Waukesha.

"This was happening at a time when we had our so-called 'sewer wars,' so there was a lot of disgruntlement between Waukesha County officials and, particually, the mayor of Milwaukee," he notes. The battle over light rail was inevitably caught up in other animosities that made regional cooperation difficult. 

Henken says that the major obstacle to successful and efficient bi-county transportation, bus or rail, has been a lack of a regional transit authority (RTA). "It really sort of demonstrates our inability, whether rightly or wrongly, to see either the four county metro region or the seven county metro region as a region as opposed to these unique jurisdictions."

"Having a regional governmental entity be the funder and administrator of that service just makes a lot of sense. Here we don't do that."

So when we see bus routes that go from Milwaukee into Waukesha County, Henken says, "You get into very dicey political issues about who pays what share and who's benefitting from that." He says the lack of follow-through on creating a regional transit authority in the early 1990s has really hindered efforts going forward.

As for the end of the JobLines, Henken points to Milwaukee County's lack of dedicated funds for transit. "I think the fundamental problem is that if you simply look at it on a passenger per bus hour basis, which is the standard used by transit systems, these [job] routes are not going to measure up."

So when financial challenges emerge, the less productive routes are the first to go — which is exactly what is happening with the JobLines. "It all links back to our unsustainable way that we're attempting to finance transit here in Milwaukee County," he says.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.