On Saturday Aug. 24, the last JobLines bus will cease operations. While Route 57 will still operate in Milwaukee County, it'll no longer cross the county line into Waukesha. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is facing a large budget shortfall and is looking to shut down even more routes than the remaining JobLine to balance a nearly $6 million deficit for 2019.
Lake Effect will be focusing on regional transit over the next couple of days, but first we start with the JobLines themselves. As the name implies, they were really meant to answer the “last mile” problem — the issue of connecting people in Milwaukee’s central city to jobs in Waukesha County.
MCTS didn't create these route as an initiative of the county transit systems — they were the result of a lawsuit. Allison Bussler, the director of public works in Waukesha County, explains:
"The Black Health Coalition and MICA sued the Wisconsin Department of Transportation [DOT] — related to the zoo interchange project. They felt that the project didn’t take into consideration the impact it would have on some disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee. And so those two groups — the DOT and the plaintiffs — came to a settlement whereby the Wisconsin Department of Transportation would fund some transit routes of the plaintiff’s choice for up to four years … They would prioritize lines that would move people from neighborhoods in Milwaukee to jobs in Waukesha County."
The JobLines started as Route 61 and Route 6. Earlier in 2019, the lines were consolidated into Route 57 — an existing line that was extended into Waukesha to fill the gap left by the other routes. Although the JobLines into Waukesha is ending, Route 57 will continue to serve inner-city riders in Milwaukee.
So, why is the Waukesha route ending?
While there are several factors, a lot of it boils down to money. The state funding ran out in 2018. And these lines were never planned as a long-term solution to begin with, according to Tom Winter, director of schedules and planning for MCTS.
"The funding that WISDOT provided from the settlement was temporary in nature and when it expired something had to happen to replace that. And we have major funding issues ourselves to deal with beyond providing for something that was temporary," he says.
While Route 57 was meant to connect people in the city to jobs in the suburbs, ridership in Waukesha County the ridership is low.
"When you look at the ridership data in Waukesha County, there were only about 70 rides per day – or about 7% of the rides. If you figure folks take the bus to work and home, it’s about 35 people. And the subsidy of what each of those riders needed was about $18,000 annually per rider," Bussler explains.
So, while these routes were well-intentioned, Bussler says these bus lines weren’t the solution MCTS hoped they would be.
"Transit wasn’t the silver bullet in this case. Job training programs that can perhaps work on that problem, as well," she says.
Kristina Hoffman, the director of marketing and communications for MCTS, "Over the past decade, Milwaukee County taxpayers have been sending more and more money to the state but the money the county receives back has been flat or even declining. So we can look at the state as being part of the problem."
And she says that even with a change in leadership in Madison, things aren’t getting better — at least not yet.
"It’s just not enough to fill the gap. Right now we’re receiving state funding that’s lower now than in 2010," Hoffman notes. "Meanwhile, the trend across the country is expanding transit but Milwaukee’s falling behind. It’s not surprising we’re in this position when we don’t have the funding to support it."
Limited funding reduces access to transit and reduces ridership. So, what other solutions are Milwaukee and Waukesha counties looking at to connect their services?
Currently, the East-West Bust Rapid Transit Project (BRT) is in the works. Essentially, it would create a designated bus lane as well as some other features that should make the bus faster and more reliable.
"The BRT is primarily from downtown to the Milwaukee regional medical center. It’s very high frequency service, it’s branded vehicles, it’s off bus payment (you pay at the station itself). So, they’re high frequency, high speed," explains Winter.
Bussler also notes that some smaller solutions include creating an app that would have a few different transit maps available for users to help make it easier for people to connect from Milwaukee County buses to Waukesha buses.