Budget fears have Milwaukee County Transit System concerned over its future

"It’s always at the cost of our riders and we’re tired of that.”
Route 60 MCTS
Posted at 3:30 PM, Apr 27, 2023

MILWAUKEE — A staple on Milwaukee’s streets could be changing how people know it.

“We’re sounding the alarms.”

Denise Wandke with MCTS
Denise Wandke, President and Interim Managing Director for MCTS is sounding the alarm of how dire the financial situation is for the state's largest transportation system. MCTS has taken out ads to alert citizens of the concerns.

Public transportation in Milwaukee began in 1860 with horse-drawn street cars, according to the Milwaukee County Transit System site. While a lot has changed in the last 160+ years, over the last decade not much has changed with the budget. It has been stagnant, forcing MCTS to make cuts to make ends meet.

It’s affecting how MCTS operates. The system has dropped 70 buses and 6 routes since 2013 and it could get worse. An impending budget crisis has the head of the transit system thinking a future without public transportation services in Milwaukee is not being overly dramatic.

MCTS changes since 2013
In the last 10 years, MCTS has had a stagnant budget, actually dropping by 2.1 percent since 2013. The result; dozens of buses lost along with a half dozen routes, while still servicing about the same area of the county.

“Anything is possible,” Denise Wandke, President and Interim Managing Director for MCTS said. “I can’t imagine Milwaukee County without a transit system. I just can’t imagine what that would do to this entire community.”

Wandke’s fears were confirmed in a recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum(WPF), detailing a growing budget gap of tens of millions of dollars over the next five years.

With American Rescue Plan Act funds drying up in 2024, MCTS needs to figure out how to fill a budget gap of $17.9 million to $25.7 million in 2025. Each year after, the gap just gets larger.

“We’ve been cutting service quietly for many years,” Wandke said. “We used to be an organization that would sit back and be quiet about cuts we were making, based on a one to two million dollar deficit per year. We’d take buses out. But we’re looking at a whole service that’s impacted by such a large amount of money. We absolutely need sustainable funding.”

Since 2013, MCTS has seen its budget drop by 2.1 percent or $3.4 million. In that same time, funding from the state has gone up 6.1 percent, an increase of $3.8 million. But Wandke says that doesn’t make them whole.

“Wages have gone up,” Wandke said. “Cost of parts, cost of buses has gone up. Where does that come from when you don’t get any more money? You have to make those unfortunate decisions. It’s always at the cost of our riders and we’re tired of that.”

The WPF report shows half of all routes could be eliminated or have service reduced, if nothing is done to fill the budget gap. WPF created a hypothetical situation to save $15 million by cutting nine different routes.

Wisconsin Policy Forum hypothetical cuts to MCTS
To save $15 million, the Wisconsin Policy Forum created hypothetical cuts to nine routes which serve roughly 4,500 riders daily.

These routes serve nearly 4,500 riders every weekday, including the busiest of the nine routes, Route 60.

Route 60 runs north to south on 60th Street through Milwaukee from Brown Deer to Greenfield. The people the I-Team spoke to on that route use it daily for a variety of reasons; from getting to work to seeing family. Eliminating this route would disrupt their lives.

“I have family that stays on Villard,” Monte Patton said. “I have to take the 60 bus to get to them.”

“I catch the 60 all the time,” Gilbert Balderas Sr. said. “To my kids’ house, my parents’ house, brothers, sisters, everybody. Don’t eliminate the 60!”

“I’d probably lose my job,” Jeff Spalding said. “I don’t have a way to get there. What more do I say?”

“Our focus, we believe, should be on making it easier, not more difficult for workers to access jobs,” Andrew Davis, VP of Government Affairs at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce (MMAC) said.

The MMAC represents roughly 1,800 businesses in the Milwaukee area, accounting for over 300,000 employees. For a city the size of Milwaukee, a robust transit system isn’t just a benefit, it’s a necessity, according to Davis.

“This need for a modern and efficient multimodal transportation system to support the economy in the region for us to compete globally is very important,” he said.

“There has to be an answer,” Wandke said. “I just don’t think people realize the impact.”

With the announcement of an increase in shared revenue from a state level, that answer could be on the way. Every community in Wisconsin will see an increase of at least 10 percent. This includes $50 million for counties across the state. Specific details haven’t been released but that $50 million must be spent on core services, including transportation. Lawmakers also allow Milwaukee County to bring a sales tax increase to a referendum.

These additions could help level out Milwaukee County’s fiscal issues as a whole.

“It could get the county on the solid financial footing it needs to keep services like MCTS afloat,” Brandon Weathersby, spokesperson for Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said.

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