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The Bus To Nowhere
Will we ever get a dedicated funding source for (gasp!) public transit?

Transit funding presents a rare opportunity for regional cooperation. Photo by Erin Gosch.

Like a veteran bus driver dodging potholes, the Milwaukee County Transit System has swerved around potential disaster for years. Infusions of federal and state cash have helped to avoid the massive service cuts and fare increases once prophesied by regional planners, but nobody believes this short-term approach can work forever. Transit backers have long argued that MCTS needs what most of its big-city counterparts already have – earmarked funding to replace property tax dollars and the burden of fighting for them.

Insiders expect the transit funding debate to resume after the November elections, and a six-county coalition, Metro Go, is already forming to press the case that businesses in southeastern Wisconsin need a public transit system that better links workers and jobs. The group is keeping a low profile and hasn’t said much about its membership or agenda, although it hopes to capitalize on an effort by Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration to overhaul transportation funding in the state. In 2013, a bipartisan commission called for boosting state transit aid and establishing regional transit authorities (RTAs) that could levy sales taxes, with voter approval. Most major urban transit systems are run by such agencies, and sales taxes remain the most common funding method in similar-sized metropolitan areas.

Previous incarnations of a Milwaukee-area RTA collapsed under the combined weight of city-suburban rivalries and anti-tax sentiments – even after the state has allowed sales taxes to pay for Miller Park, renovations at Lambeau Field, and the Wisconsin Center District overseeing Milwaukee’s convention center. And suggestions to package transit funding with a new Downtown arena haven’t gained much traction.

With or without an RTA, city leaders may consider several routes out of the transit jam – the most feasible of which are presented below.

➞ Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has pinned his hopes on savings promised by a fiercely contested proposal to hand bus system management over to a Dallas company, MV Transportation, a deal rejected by a County Board committee as unrealistic. The current operator, Milwaukee Transport Services, has won high marks for cost-effective management and in recent years sliced millions in wages, benefits and costs for transporting the disabled. But this isn’t over: Abele has hired a consultant to identify more cuts.

Payroll tax
➞ Although Wisconsin politicians have shown little enthusiasm for local income taxes, some metro areas (including Cincinnati) use payroll taxes to pay for transit.

Wheel tax
➞ As they plead for state help, Milwaukee County supervisors are scorning a tax already within their power. The County Board could impose a vehicle registration fee to pay for buses, but members have voted down such measures, most recently in 2009.

Sales tax
➞ Milwaukee County voters backed a 1 percent sales tax for transit, parks and paramedics in a 2008 advisory referendum, but the state Legislature never implemented it, even while under Democratic control. Lawmakers still could do it, through either an RTA or the county.

Regional Transit Authority 
➞ Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a Milwaukee County-only bus authority in 2009, in an ultimately futile bid for a truly regional authority. But Republicans dismantled the last surviving Milwaukee-area RTA – and others around the state – after taking control of the state Legislature in 2011. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos remains a powerful opponent. ■

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the rest of August issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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