Abele Anxious For New Transit Manager to Get Onboard

Aug 26, 2013

An exhibit at the Milwaukee Transit Museum shows trackless trolleys coping with the aftermath of a blizzard decades ago.

The Milwaukee County Transit System has revised a few bus routes, as of this week. Meanwhile, county leaders may change which company runs the system.

County Executive Chris Abele wants to award the next contract to MV Transportation. It’s a for-profit firm based in Dallas.

If selected, it would replace Milwaukee Transport Services. The local not-for-profit company has managed the system since 1975.

Each side insists it will deliver what’s best for riders and workers.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele thinks riders could get more bang for the buck if someone new runs the county transit system.

“Value to me, in transit, means, for your tax dollar, as many routes, as frequent running of the routes, as clean and new bus fleet as we can provide, without of course fare increases,” Abele says.

Abele adds he also wants to include an insurance provision, of sorts.

“The nice thing about this contract is, regardless of who the winning bid is, the county has a lot more protection than it did in the existing contract,” Abele says.

W.C. Pihl  is spokesman for the Dallas firm the county exec handed a tentative contract. He says the company is anxious to add Milwaukee to its roster. It already serves cities in 28 states, including Los Angeles, California and Fairfax, Virginia.

“Bringing on a private company brings a lot of benefits. We have a lot of proprietary technology that we have created over the years. All of these things will help us to improve service and take better care of the passengers and save the county money. They can put that money back into service,” Pihl says.

He adds the Dallas company hopes to create an incentive program for employees. Pihl says more than half its current workers are unionized and it would honor the wages and work rules Milwaukee’s system and union here have negotiated. According to Pihl, the Dallas firm would also assume the pension plan.

Rick Bassler is doubtful.        

“For them to come in and say they are going to inherit and honor a $375 million to $400 million pension plan, we don’t see how they can do that,” Bassler says.

Vintage bus passes are on display in an exhibit at the Milwaukee Transit Museum at the downtown transit center.

Bassler is Acting President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998.

“If you’re a for profit company, where are you going to get the profits from? You know, you have to slash. We see the ADA community getting hurt by this. We see the minority community getting hurt by this,” Bassler says.

Another skeptic is Joe Caruso.

He worked for the Milwaukee manager for nearly 30 years and now serves as a consultant on public transportation. Caruso foresees the potential new transit manager having a tough time matching the efficiency of his former employer.

“Probably somewhere between 86 and 88 percent of every transit dollar that’s invested in this community goes directly into service. Only about 12 to 14 percent goes into administration and that’s one of the lowest among all the systems that are similar in size to the Milwaukee County Transit system,” Caruso says.

Still to be determined is when the county might award its next transit system contract. County Executive Abele says January is a possibility, if the County Board gives the green light.

Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic says it’s ready to tackle the issue.

“We’ll have public hearings, we’ll really want to hear from the public on this matter, and then we’ll make the best decision possible,” Dimitrijevic says.

A “yes” vote would trigger the first change in county transit management since 1975. A “no” vote could mean repeating the entire process.

And tossed into the mix right now – Milwaukee Transport Services is contemplating re-submitting a bid to manage the system.