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With the new BRT, it’s time for Milwaukee to embrace the bus (and #SaveTheBus)
FEATURE STORY: The new East-West bus rapid transit line is genuinely terrific. It could prove to represent a turning point for Milwaukee's beleaguered bus system. That is, if we seize the opportunity.
The Recombobulation Area is a
six-time TEN-TIME Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Milwaukee County’s very first bus rapid transit route launched last week. The brand new East-West line – “Connect 1” – runs nine miles from the east end of downtown Milwaukee to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa, mostly along Wisconsin Avenue and Bluemound Road. It features brand new battery electric buses, and perhaps most importantly, each bus is scheduled to arrive every 10 minutes during peak hours.
This is a big deal.
Milwaukee is a transit-starved city, and any addition like a bus rapid transit (BRT) line is bound to be a big deal, but this route in particular is packed with potential. This is the type of project that could prove to be a real catalyst for transit in the Milwaukee area, and there’s hope that this could represent a real turning point for the county’s beleaguered bus system, which, like so many components of local government in Milwaukee, is on the brink of fiscal disaster and catastrophic cuts.
But first, the good news. The new BRT is genuinely excellent. It exceeds expectations. The frequency of the buses coming through the route is like nothing else we’ve yet seen in the region, the new bus stations provide far more cover than a normal stop, dedicated bus-only lanes on portions of the route allow the new efficient, clean-energy buses to zoom through traffic, and a significant amount of ground is covered by this route. It’s a win-win-win-win-win. It feels like a major leap forward for Milwaukee.
Part of what struck me riding this for the first time is just how many notable locations and attractions are connected by this nine-mile route, and how easy it is to access all of them through traveling on the BRT – which is currently free through the end of September.
The new BRT rolls by the U.S. Bank and Northwestern Mutual towers; Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and O’Donnell Park; the new Giannis mural; hotels like the Pfister, Marriott, Drury Plaza, Hilton, Ambassador (and many more); Water Street and the Milwaukee River (and the riverwalk); the Riverside Theater and Bradley Symphony Center; the Baird Center (convention center); 3rd Street Market Hall; Milwaukee Public Library’s Central Library; Marquette University; The Rave; several dense residential neighborhoods like Merrill Park, Avenues West, Concordia, Pigville, Story Hill (and many more in east Wauwatosa); Tripoli Shrine Center; the Wisconsin Humane Society; it comes within blocks of top regional attractions like the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Milwaukee Public Museum; it rolls right along where many park to get to Brewers games at American Family Field; and the route ends at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (MRMC), which includes Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Hospital, the Medical College of Wisconsin (and more). It will also soon end its route right near the doorstep of Summerfest, the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World when The Couture high-rise is completed, housing both a loop for the lake extension of The Hop streetcar and the station for the BRT’s final stop on the first level of the new high-rise building.
That’s so much stuff on one route! Now it’s all connected like never before.
The route also connects the area’s two main job centers, downtown and the MRMC. If you’ve ever traveled on bus routes on the west side of Milwaukee County, you’ve seen how many people use the bus to get to work at the various hospitals and health centers there, and how often this route will be used for a simple commute. Now, that commute gets that much easier, with more options to get on the route and being less beholden to a schedule with less frequency and certainty.
Beyond the commute, because of the four-month sponsorship deal with Umo Mobility, people can get used to this new route without having to pay. Getting to Summerfest, or other festivals happening on the grounds, will be free and easy. Smart riders heading downtown won’t bother with pricey parking or gnarled traffic, but instead cruise in on the BRT.
Connecting all of this with a safe, efficient form of transportation could be a genuine game-changer for Milwaukee. Well, that is, if we choose to embrace the opportunity. And if yet another simmering crisis facing Milwaukee’s already-hollowed-out public sector doesn’t boil over before we even get a chance to see the system thrive.
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The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new BRT was held the morning of Monday, June 5, at 27th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in the city of Milwaukee. The main focus for the event was, of course, the excitement surrounding the project. But throughout many of the various speeches, there was the presence of the undercurrent of uncertainty that’s penetrating every aspect of city and county government as the debate over a bill overhauling the state’s shared revenue system and allowing for a local sales tax in Milwaukee continues on.
Bus transportation is one of the many vital services that local government delivers that could be at risk of collapse without a local revenue solution like the sales tax that is one of the highlights of the state’s deal, the framework for which was announced Thursday, June 8, with support from both Republican leaders in the state legislature and the state’s Democratic governor.
As Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley has said many times, the County is a few short years away from no longer having the revenue to fund services that are not mandated by state law to be carried out by county governments across Wisconsin. Bus transportation and MCTS are among those non-mandated services that are at risk. And this bus system, which gives rides to tens of thousands every day to a very diverse, mostly working class group of people, is just a few short years away from having no funding at all, without a new revenue solution.
“This community absolutely, positively needs to have public transportation,” said Denise Wandke, the newly appointed president and managing director of MCTS, in a brief interview with The Recombobulation Area at the ribbon cutting ceremony. “We look at the fiscal cliff and we get nervous every year.”
Even with a state solution that could have the potential to stave off this fiscal cliff, there are numerous potential pitfalls, the system would still likely face cuts, and its long-term future would still have a murky outlook. The cliff would be delayed, but not eliminated.
What’s happening at MCTS is a microcosm of what’s facing essentially all local bodies of government in Milwaukee. Put simply, state aid has been flat or declining for years if not decades, and costs continue to rise. Funding for local governments in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) staved off steep cuts, but now those funds are running out.
A potential turning point toward a better future is there in our sights, but it’s shrouded in uncertainty and confusion and years of toxicity directed toward Milwaukee. Even a look to our not-too-distant past shows that we can build a better bus system for the city and county. MCTS was honored as the Best Transit System in the nation for a second time in 1999.
“We think back to the service we had years ago, when our ridership was up because we had that many buses, we had this type of service,” Wandke said of the type of service being delivered by the BRT. “This is what people need. They want fast and reliable (service).”
She added: “As we started to cut millions and millions in our budget, every year, it took away that flexibility. You take a bus out of the line, and instead of a 15-minute wait, it's a 30-minute wait. It becomes less reliable, and forces people to make other decisions as to how they're going to get there. So this is the beginning of saying: We're here. We're not going anywhere. And this is what the community wants.”
The day after the BRT ribbon-cutting, a conference on the BRT and the future of transit was held at No Studios. The event was presented by MobiliSE, a transit advocacy nonprofit that has in recent years been working on a fascinating and growing grant-funded workforce mobility project called “FlexRide,” which offers on-demand rides from Milwaukee neighborhoods to suburban “employment zones.” This is yet another incredibly encouraging addition to the region’s transportation mix, and it has seen some early success. The organization is also working to incorporate a child care pickup and dropoff component to its service to help meet the needs of its growing group of “flex riders,” most of whom are women.
The conversation it hosted was more of a big picture look at transit, and while there is genuine excitement around the BRT and the success and expansion of FlexRide, there was broad recognition of the challenges the broader transportation system faces, and questions over its future in the region.
Dave Steele, the executive director of MobiliSE, said FlexRide has “exceeded expectations” thus far, and as a longtime transportation advocate, says he’s “hopeful” about the BRT.
“If BRT takes hold, there’s that sense of regularity and that changes that image,” he said, alluding to long-established perceptions of the bus system in the Milwaukee area that have been difficult to shake.
“We need to tell a different story about MCTS,” Steele added. “This is one of the most successful government funded entities in our region, given what they’ve been able to do with so little.”
Budgetary constraints was the focus of one of the event’s speakers, Wisconsin Policy Forum president Rob Henken who outlined the dire outlook for the transit system. Henken said that former mayor Tom Barrett often referred to him as “Milwaukee’s buzzkill,” and that seemed like an apt characterization as he delved into the research from the Forum’s recent report, “Detour Ahead.”
“Many of you may not be aware of this,” Henken said at the conference, “But by far the largest revenue source in the MCTS budget is money coming from the state of Wisconsin.”
That revenue stream from the state, Henken explained, has been flat for many, many years. Couple that with declining passenger fare revenues from decreased ridership in the late 2010s, the impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, and added inflationary pressures, and you have an imbalance that leads to a structural deficit. That dynamic was made even worse when state Republicans cut state funding for MCTS in half in the most recent budget, and Gov. Evers only partially refilled that gap with ARPA dollars.
Looking forward, Henken ran through many various projections for the system – none of them particularly encouraging – ending with one “optimistic” model where the system essentially stabilizes through new sales tax revenues that could come from a deal with the state, along with increases to vehicle registration fees.
“Under that scenario, things could work out OK,” said Henken.
When your most optimistic outcome is a stopgap temporary solution where things could — could! — “work out OK,” that makes it pretty clear that the system is in real trouble.
“I will say to you,” Henken added, “that unless there are at least inflationary increases in state aid, that gap is going to start building again after 2028. So we should make no mistake in thinking this is a long-term solution.”
Later that same day, officials from MCTS and the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) presented their own set of dire potential outcomes to the Milwaukee County Board. Those projections, examining what would happen if indeed the fiscal cliff arrived in 2025 without a revenue solution, included cutting 16 of 36 routes, making up nearly half of all routes and 20% of all service, as a $26.5 million structural deficit looming in 2025 threatens to throw the system into a death spiral. Estimates from that report say that 125,000 residents would be affected by those cuts, cuts that would be felt by small businesses countywide.
Anticipating this discussion over potentially catastrophic cuts, MCTS recently launched the “#SaveTheBus” campaign to bring attention to this issue and encourage people to take action and contact their elected leaders.
The paradox of the excitement and potential from the launch of the BRT while the system’s very existence faces an existential threat is hard to ignore.
But the BRT does present a genuine opportunity. And unlike some other public transit projects in Milwaukee, this one is – at least so far – not being met with polarizing partisan ire, endless claims of “boondoggle,” and hot takes melting the talk radio airwaves for hours a day, years on end. Yes, I’m referring to the much-maligned streetcar – “The Hop.”
Because in Wisconsin, Republicans have a full-blown case of Streetcar Derangement Syndrome. This cannot be denied. Their fury toward this project is levels beyond disproportionate to the reality it represents.
Republicans and their talk radio allies have spent more than a decade in a seemingly constant state of rage over the streetcar, even though its annual operating expense is less than one half of one percent of the city of Milwaukee’s annual budget. The project is proving to be a catalyst for development along the route – the two biggest towers going up downtown are on the streetcar line – as well as a frequently-traveled convenience winding through downtown, with ridership beginning to rebound from the pandemic. Most people in Milwaukee seem to either be in favor of it and want it to expand – many elected officials representing neighborhoods near downtown want it expanded to their districts – or are more or less indifferent to what is ultimately a fairly small project. Its inclusion in the policy requirements of the Milwaukee sales tax portion of the new shared revenue overhaul bill, which would block any new revenue to go toward funding the project, is simply inappropriate. And it continues to be notable that no anti-streetcar candidate has won an election when running for higher office in Milwaukee. Perhaps this is indicative of how wildly out of touch Republicans are with voters in urban areas, particularly in Wisconsin. The inverse of this is discussed ad nauseam, and yet this dynamic is rarely explored.
There’s some disingenuous attitudes directed at bus-based public transit from Republicans within their Streetcar Derangement Syndrome arguments, too. They will often claim that they just don’t like the streetcar, and that they have no problem with buses. But as mentioned, Republicans in the legislature very recently cut the system’s funding in half, and have never at any point shown any inkling to increase or expand bus service in Milwaukee, and have never come close to warming up to the idea of developing a regional transit authority for the metro area. Republicans in the state and region have not been pro-transit in the least, and some trace the fall of the County’s bus system’s to Scott Walker’s time as county executive, from 2002 to 2010. Walker, of course, also famously killed the proposed $800 million high speed rail line in the Midwest, which remains a generational mistake. Transit opposition from Republicans has not been specific to just one downtown fixed rail project.
However, if you were to create a hypothetical either-or decision on which to support between the BRT and the streetcar – even though Milwaukee can, and should, expand both – the decision is an easy one: It’s the BRT.
If Republicans are going to deride the streetcar and remain neutral on the BRT, that makes the decision that much easier. Let’s seek progress and action where progress and action can best be found.
Perhaps the details of how this project was funded can point to a softening of the typical political polarization you might expect to be directed toward it.
Because the majority of the funding for the East-West BRT came from the Trump administration. Yes, former president Donald Trump announced more than $40 million in funding for the East-West BRT line in a tweet in late May of 2020 (there were a few things going on around that time; you may have missed it).
“What I’m very happy about with the BRT is that there is no one politician, Democrat or Republican, whose name is attached to it,” said Steele. “I think that’s really positive. The federal funding for the BRT was announced in a tweet from the former president, who spoke very highly of it. That kind of stuff helps. I think politically, it was delivered to our community in a much more bipartisan way.”
The East-West BRT project began in the planning stages during the Obama administration, was funded by the Trump administration, and has been brought through to fruition during the Biden administration. It takes a really long time to get any kind of transit win around here
The lack of political polarization surrounding this project, though, does bring more optimism that a BRT network could be expanded. Currently in process is a study taking a look at a line that would run the length of 27th Street in Milwaukee County, and cost estimates for that North-South route – which would be 18 miles, twice as long as the East-West route – were projected to be nearly $150 million. That would really be a big deal. As would a second East-West route along National and Greenfield avenues, as has been proposed by highway expansion opponents. As would extending the current BRT all the way down Bluemound into Waukesha. There’s a lot of potential for BRT connections in the metro area.
Despite the Trump administration’s funding for this project, however, there was nary a Republican at the BRT launch event. Democratic leadership from multiple levels of government, including Mayor Cavalier Johnson, County Executive David Crowley, Lieutenant Governor Sara Rodriguez, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, all spoke at the event, and many more were in attendance. The only passing mention of Republicans’ involvement with the project was Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) secretary Craig Thompson alluding to there not being much “passion for transit” in the halls of the Capitol during his brief speech.
(Thompson also said the BRT would likely reduce highway congestion on I-94. Perhaps we should study the real-terms impact of that before committing to an expensive, unnecessary and intrusive highway widening project? You all know where I stand on this one.)
Also not showing much of a presence at the BRT launch event were members of the local business community. That was unfortunate. Because if we are going to not only #SaveTheBus but put it in a position to thrive and make so much of the city and region accessible for everyone, we’re going to need more buy-in from those types of local leaders. Instead, there was hardly a whisper of support from those who like to think of themselves of champions of progress in the region. The business community absolutely needs to step up and support the bus system, and needs to do so in a big way.
This topic came up at the MobiliSE conference by way of a panel discussion on connecting employers with workers. Among the panelists was Joel Brennan, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, who formerly worked in the Evers’ administration as Secretary of the Department of Administration, who said the business community needs to do more to advocate for transit.
“The connection between workforce and transit – and I take some (responsibility), too – we have not made as good a connection between workforce and transit as say, workforce and K-12 education. There are business leaders who are very deeply involved in the K-12 (education) effort. I think on issues that are important to workforce – child care trends, housing – we have not done as good a job. I think, the business community, in addition to potentially trying to find those innovative and creative solutions, we need to be better advocates (for transit)... I think we’ve done a pretty good job, in the business community, advocating for the shared revenue and the sales tax because those are so important for critically important basic resources. I think the next level we have to take is to make sure that we’re better informed and better advocates on some of these other issues.”
A quick story: In the brief time that I lived in Seattle, civic leaders celebrated a significant victory in a shift in how the city commutes. In the early part of the 2010s, the city’s population grew by about 100,000 people. That growth led to many good things, but also created all kinds of unintended problems, mostly through skyrocketing housing costs. But one avenue of success in managing that growth has been in the city and region’s transit adoption. Toward the end of the decade, Seattle had fewer people driving to work alone (in single-occupancy vehicles, or SOV’s) than at the beginning, and the number of people commuting via transit exploded. By 2017, nearly half of all commuters were taking public transit. And by far the most popular form had become the bus, with about 37% of people working downtown commuting by bus.
This reduced highway congestion, helped fuel the expanded bus system, and made it easier for more people to get around the city without the use of a car. That shift required a buy-in from many of the major downtown employers to help facilitate that shift to transit adoption. But they did, and it worked.
Now, in a post-pandemic environment, with businesses wanting to get people back into the office, why not encourage and/or incentivize people to start taking the bus to work, by giving them a bus pass instead of a parking spot? Milwaukee is also facing a reckless driving crisis, so why not promote the fact that taking a bus is infinitely safer than traveling by car? The city just issued a request for proposals for an “unprecedented transit-oriented development” at a vacant lot at 5th and Wisconsin, why not work with the County to better connect development with the BRT there? FlexRide is seeing success, why not make that project permanent so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the JobLines route that ended in 2019? There are a whole lot of questions the city and region are asking for which the BRT and MCTS could provide answers.
Beyond the business community stepping up for once to promote the bus, it’s also going to take all of us buying in and committing to use the bus differently and more often. Our own behaviors and aspirations need some altering, too. Like how every few months, a new hypothetical map of fixed rail in the Milwaukee region will make the rounds online, but instead of feigning excitement for some far-off vision for the future, we need to understand the impact we can make in the present. All of us should be using the bus more often.
The bus system is a vital piece of the fabric of Milwaukee County. It represents economic mobility, and a critical service for the roughly one in five Milwaukeeans who do not have access to a vehicle.
The MCTS operating budget is roughly $178 million. An aspirational goal for this community should be for that budget to double. Yes, double.
With the state’s $7 billion surplus – and funding left on the table by not expanding Medicaid or legalizing marijuana – that shouldn’t be seen as unreasonable. Dramatically expanding the bus system and prioritizing investment in a service that is so important for working class Milwaukeeans is the type of thing we should be doing far more of.
The BRT can be the beginning of something new. It’s on our leaders – business and political – to prioritize this, to realize this, and to seize an opportunity. It’s also on all of us, to use the wonderful bus system that we have – before it’s too late.
If Milwaukee is truly going to be a city for everyone, we need a robust public transit system. We need the BRT. We need the bus. Let’s show up and support this system and work to build it into something better than ever.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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