Forum held to discuss transportation issues in Waukesha County

Posted at 12:35 PM, Sep 14, 2016

WAUKESHA -- Community organizations and local government officials came together in Waukesha on Wednesday morning to discuss ways to improve public transportation across the county. 

Peter Skopec, the director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, said Wisconsin has invested heavily into improving its highway system during the last 15 years. 

But Skopec said he believes local transportation infrastructure, from buses to roads and bridges, has not received the same type of attention. 

He said the goal of Wednesday's forum, officially dubbed a Critical Transportation Conversation, was to hear from residents of Waukesha County about ways they feel public transportation can be improved. 

"We want to hear from them about what's working, and what's not working," Skopec said. "We know the transportation system isn't serving everyone. There are a lot of people who either can't afford to drive or can't drive because they're elderly or disabled. That means those people can't get to work, can't get to school, can't get to the doctor's office or to the grocery store."

Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow, who attended the forum, said the county's population is aging. He said more and more people are reliant on public transportation not just to get to work, but to reach medical appointments. 

"Our big goal here is that last mile," Farrow said. "How do we go about getting people from buses, to the bus stop, and then how do we get them to the different locations they're going." 

But Farrow said Waukesha's senior population isn't densely packed into certain areas, so the problem can't be solved simply with more buses. 

He said many of the county's seniors are reliant on volunteer taxi programs run by local organizations. Many of them are funded with money from a county block grant program. 

Farrow said he envisions a solution being, in part, a collaboration with Milwaukee County to better connect the two, respective transit systems. He said many of Waukesha County's seniors receive medical treatments at facilities in Milwaukee County. 

But Farrow said one of the biggest obstacles to any improvements to Waukesha County's transportation system is cost. 

"Just figuring out where to get the funding is a challenge," Farrow said. "Many of the people using public transportation rely on fixed incomes, so we don't want to put the burden on them." 

Farrow said his office will also be looking into how to allocate more money to the maintenance of local roads. He said road maintenance was the top, transportation issue cited in a recent survey of local businesses. 

As for the debate on transportation funding at the state level, Farrow said he believes Wisconsin will have to come up with an alternative source of funding to complement money raised through its gas tax and vehicle registration tax. 

Money collected through the gas tax will continue to shrink as cars become more fuel efficient, Farrow said. 

"As for the registration fee, we can keep raising it if we want but that's not a sustainable model," he said. 

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will formally present its 2017-19 budget proposal to Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday. 

In a news release issued this week, Walker said his administration increased general transportation aids for counties and municipalities by 4 percent in 2015, from $403.5 million to $419.6 million in total.

"Governor Walker will provide more money for all levels of local government in the next budget," the news release said.