End of the Line

The Milwaukee County Transit System has been trapped in a budget-induced death spiral – increased fares and reduced service, leading to fewer riders and less revenue, leading to increased fares and reduced service. But it wasn’t always that way. Can an out-of-state, for-profit company resurrect the public system?

A version of this story appeared in the November 2013 issue. The story has been updated to reflect the Oct. 25 decision to extend Milwaukee Transport Services’ contract for one year.

About a dozen people have gathered in the makeshift lobby of the Milwaukee County Transit System’s Fleet Maintenance Facility. It’s a rare public appearance for the usually private bus repair shop during September’s Doors Open Milwaukee event.

The morning’s tour guide comes in the form of effervescent Joe Price, dressed in an argyle sweater, designer blue frames, slacks and loafers – presumably nicer than his regular uniform as the bus system’s training instructor. “MCTS is the best transit system in the country,” he tells the crowd.

They laugh.

“No, really,” he insists. As proof, he offers the two awards the system won from the American Public Transportation Association in 1987 and 1999. “When it comes to transit, there’s nothing we can’t do,” he says.

And when Price says it’s the best system in the country, he believes it. He started as a bus cleaner back in 1999 and worked his way up to training instructor eight years ago.

The tour serves as an argument of sorts, Price’s treatise on the value of MCTS – and the nonprofit company contracted by Milwaukee County to run it: Milwaukee Transport Services.

He shows the crowd the body department, where damage – ranging from small dents and nicks to large-scale collisions – is repaired. One bus in particular sits without a door, with half of the front section gone, leaving rough shards of metal.

“I think the word totaled is not in your vocabulary here,” says a former bus driver on the tour.

“You know, it is not,” Price says. “There ain’t nothing these guys can’t do.”

His argument continues in the tire room, where he explains the financial agreement the company has with Firestone to lease the bus tires. Each tire costs $338 over its lifetime of about 77,000 miles, while purchasing new ones would run upward of $570 apiece. When the bill reaches $450,000 each year, that’s no small savings. “You can’t get that deal anywhere that I know of,” Price says.

All of these scrappy efforts – the bus repairs, the tire leasing, the recycling of radios from used-up buses – are in the interest of frugality, Price says. “People say bad things about our company, but we’re saving the county money,” he says.

“Apparently, you weren’t doing a good enough job,” the former bus driver says. “It’s a shame; I wish they weren’t doing it.”

“It” being the county’s controversial proposal to award the $164 million bus system contract to Dallas-based MV Transportation – a for-profit company with contracts in more than 160 cities worldwide. Although the original idea was to have MV Transportation take over the system on Jan. 1, 2014, legal challenges from MTS held up the process and on Oct. 25, the county extended MTS’ contract for one year.

If the county ultimately awards the contract to MV, it would mark the end of a four-decade run for Milwaukee Transport Services. The nonprofit was created specifically to run Milwaukee County Transit System, and it has done just that – weathering massive budget cuts, decreasing ridership and an increasingly politicized atmosphere – until a misstep that will cost the county more than $8 million provoked a competitive bidding process that just might leave MTS in the annals of Milwaukee transit history.

The only remaining track from Milwaukee’s once prevalent electric railroad system runs from The Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago to the East Troy Railroad Museum. And on that track is where Joe Caruso, who served as the marketing director for MCTS for 28 years, decided to spend his birthday in August.

It was a spontaneous decision, he says, but he hadn’t been to the museum in quite some time and took his son, daughter-in-law and 3-year-old grandson. “It was kind of interesting because, parked on the side, there was a Milwaukee streetcar,” he says. “I remember seeing that streetcar when it was in shambles.”

That sparked some memories for Caruso, who retired from his post in 2007. “Tell me about this,” his daughter-in-law prompted.

So he did.

“That line that runs there was part of the interurban system,” he told her. And that interurban system was just one part of the puzzle, one moment in Milwaukee transit that goes all the way back to the horse-drawn streetcars in the 1860s. “If you look at transit today from an organizational standpoint – and if it were a family tree – you could trace it back to the original horse-drawn streetcars of Milwaukee,” Caruso says. “There’s really kind of this direct lineage and history and culture.”

That lineage started with four draft horses pulling a streetcar down Water Street, then a dirt road, on May 30, 1860. The proprietor of this, Milwaukee’s first organized streetcar line, was none other than George H. Walker, founder of Walker’s Point.

By 1880, Milwaukee had three separate streetcar lines. “The routes did not overlap,” says John Gurda, Milwaukee historian. “You couldn’t transfer from one to another without paying an extra fare. It was anything but an integrated system.”

But Milwaukee’s love affair with horse-drawn transit expired in the 1880s as cities began to electrify their mass transit. It was around this time that Henry Villard, a would-be-tycoon, purchased the city’s streetcar lines as well as the electric utilities. The country’s first unified utility system came to life in the form of the Milwaukee Street Railway Co.

From 1890 to 1896, the total track length increased from 53 miles to 130 miles. Despite the increased service – and cost of electrifying the new track – the fare price held steady at just 5 cents. In 1895, the system carried 28 million passengers – not too bad for a city of just over 200,000.

As a result of the Panic of 1893, the Milwaukee Street Railway was reorganized and incorporated as The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co., a forefather to the Wisconsin Electric Power Co. – known today as WE Energies. The energy not needed to power the electric streetcars was sold off to local businesses and residents. “You can’t store electricity,” Gurda says. “You use it or you don’t.”

Early in the 20th century, John Beggs took the helm of TMER&L with the goal of giving Milwaukee a real transit system, Gurda says. And history books look kindly upon Beggs’ efforts. By 1906, the system’s fleet grew to 450 cars – up from just 165 in 1895. Beggs continued buying up other rail systems and adding service. By 1910, 232 miles of track extended south to Kenosha, west to Watertown and southwest to East Troy, where the last remnants of the track remain today.

For years, many claimed the utility – power and transit – should be owned by the city. That rallying cry became even stronger with Milwaukee’s socialist mayors. “Every one of them believed wholeheartedly in municipal ownerships of power,” Gurda says. But that time would come later. Instead, regulation increased, setting benchmarks for service, fares and rates of return.

So, when TMER&L’s transit system struggled financially, the company was limited in terms of what it could do to mitigate losses. From 1920 to 1929, ridership grew from 212 million to just 216 million. Add to that the explosion of car ownership in the city – from one in 84 families in 1910 to one in every family in 1930 – and TMER&L was ready to dump the city’s transit system. But regulation required the company’s streetcars keep chugging along, profit or no profit.

Nationwide, tracks and rail lines were being dismantled with abandon. Appleton’s system – one of the country’s first – ran its last route on April 6, 1930. But the Milwaukee system kept on, even adding a high-speed route that cut through West Allis and Wauwatosa and avoided congested suburban streets. The $1.6 million project cut the travel time from Downtown Milwaukee to Waukesha to just 35 minutes. (The shortcut was so good that 30 years after the trains stopped, Interstate-94 grew along the same route.)

During the Great Depression, the interurban trains operated at a loss, despite several ploys to attract riders. At some point in the late 1930s, Gurda says, TMER&L had had enough of transit and began to extricate itself from the transit business.

The transit part of TMER&L’s business was spun off into a subsidiary known as the Transport Co., and it began dismantling and selling bits and pieces of its once great transit empire. Most of the Burlington line was suspended in 1938; the East Troy branch stopped in 1939; and the Waukesha line stopped going to Watertown in 1940. (The TMER&L building itself remains a Milwaukee landmark, housing the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater at the Milwaukee Repertory complex on Wells and Water streets.)

In May 1947, the Transport Co. listed itself for sale, but there were no takers. Not even the city, which thought “ownership and operation of the community’s transit system by the present private company or an equally stable private company is undoubtedly preferable to any type of municipal ownership.”

On Dec. 30, 1952, the Transport Co. finalized the sale to a four-man syndicate called the Milwaukee & Suburban Transport Co. The entire system went for $10 million – a loss of $8 million for the Transport Co. The new company continued to replace rail with buses, and by 1958, all the streetcars and interurban trains were gone – many of them burned at the Waukesha Gravel Pit.

The Transport Co. name stuck with the new company, but a new profitability was never found. In the 1960s, the federal government created funding sources for publicly operated transit systems, which excluded the Transport Co. “Private ownership didn’t make much sense anymore,” Caruso says. “Milwaukee was really kind of a holdout.”

It’s perhaps during that time that Milwaukee developed the stigma attached to mass transit. “We had a privately operated system so late into the modern era, one of the latest big city systems to be converted to public ownership in the country,” says Ald. Bob Bauman. He says residents in their 50s, 60s and 70s remember when transit used to make a profit and don’t understand why it can’t make a profit now. That is partly to blame for the negative perception of transit in Milwaukee. “Unlike big cities that have recognized transit as necessary public service to maintain their economic order, here it’s perceived as a social welfare service,” he says.

Rob Henken, the president of the Public Policy Forum and transit expert, agrees. “Here, those using transit tend to be those who don’t have any other choice,” he says. “It’s been difficult to generate public support. Transit is viewed as more of a social service program than a transportation program.”

The first plan to purchase the Milwaukee & Suburban Transit system was presented to Milwaukee County in November 1971. It took the county almost four years and threats of missing out on federal money to seal the deal, but on July 1, 1975, transit in Milwaukee became truly public.
Busfares_chartIt was 1985, and MCTS was in great shape. The system hit its ridership peak of 66 million a few years earlier, in 1980 or ’81 Caruso estimates. That year, the system overhauled its farebox system – the same one it still uses, though a new system is expected to be implemented later this year. Just two years later, MCTS would win the first of its national awards.For the 125th anniversary of public transportation in Milwaukee – and the 10th anniversary of public ownership – MCTS pulled out all the stops. An original horse-drawn streetcar was trailered in from Appleton. Joe Caruso even found several Percheron horses to pull the streetcar in a parade.

But the county hadn’t purchased a healthy system back in 1975. The purchase price – ultimately $13 million – wasn’t decided upon until a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in 1979, the year after Caruso arrived in Milwaukee. Despite its failings, the system had 52 million riders in 1975. By comparison, MCTS had just over 37 million passengers in 2012.

When it bought the system, the county made an interesting decision: An independent nonprofit was created to run the system. “It was decided back at that time that Milwaukee County would not take on the employees,” says Mike Giugno, the current managing director of MCTS. Instead, Milwaukee Transport Services was born. “It exists solely to operate transit in Milwaukee,” he says. “That’s all we do. We’re local; we’re nonprofit; and we’ve been doing this for 38 years.”

The arrangement works as such: The county owns the buses, buildings and equipment, and contracts MTS to hire drivers, mechanics and administrative staff to operate the system. That arrangement was controversial from the start. A 1978 Milwaukee Journal article questioned the salaries of these quasi-public employees, and MTS didn’t release an annual report until 2008. “I was not a big believer in annual reports,” Caruso says. “That was just my personal philosophy as a marketing guy. We didn’t have a shareholder, per se.”

Busmiles_Revenuepassangers_chartsThe system’s lack of dedicated funding earned just as much ire. A Milwaukee Journal editorial from the day the county took over the system laments the situation: “Rather than preparing for this day by seeking enabling legislation for a progressive local tax to subsidize transit, county supervisors deluded themselves in ways that now leave only the property tax to bear the full local burden. This can still be corrected. Once the county finally dismisses the foolish notion that transit shouldn’t cost local taxpayers anything, an alternative to the property tax can be sought.”

Almost 40 years later, many still cling to that foolish notion. Bauman points to Chicago as an example. The region’s transit system has dedicated funding in the form of a sales tax – higher in the city and lower in the suburbs. It was a political battle, he says, but eventually they got buy-in. “There isn’t buy-in into that notion here,” says Bauman.

That lack of dedicated funding has become more pronounced over the years as state and county funding has dipped. “The existing bus system [is] steadily facing declining operating subsidies [and] reductions of service, primarily under [Gov.] Walker,” Bauman says. “It really began before him, but he certainly accelerated it. At some point, it’s no longer a viable system anymore.”

The budget cuts began after the county pension scandal in 2000. The funding comes from four sources: state funding, federal funding, local funding and system-generated revenue (passenger fares, advertising, etc.). “The county share of how transit is funded was cut at times, so that resulted in some tough decisions in service,” Caruso says. “That was a very lean time.”

And Scott Walker’s election as county executive in 2002 didn’t help. “When Scott Walker became county executive, he said, ‘We’re not going to have any property tax increases,’” Caruso says. “As a result, the pie didn’t get any bigger.” In 2000, local funding made up about 15 percent of the transit system’s budget. By 2011 – the last county budget Walker created – local funding had fallen to a mere 10 percent.

Some are less kind. “I’ve made no secret of my antipathy toward Walker,” Gurda says. “His pattern was to raise fares and cut service. That has really hurt the system.” He goes as far as to say the death of public transit in Milwaukee was “without question, Scott Walker becoming county executive in 2002.”

With the budget cuts have come service cuts. From 2001 to 2012, service decreased 20 percent while fares increased 50 percent. A one-way cash fare was $1.50 in 2001, and buses traveled almost 22 million miles. In 2012, a one-way cash fare was $2.25, and buses traveled just over 17 million miles.

The region’s employees – and employers – rely on transit. “The thing that people don’t understand about transit is that even if they don’t ever ride it, they really need it,” says Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit NOW, a transportation advocacy group. About half of MCTS’ 150,000 daily rides are for work purposes, and 15.5 percent of households in Milwaukee County don’t have access to a car. That figure jumps to 55 percent in some neighborhoods. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found more than 40,500 jobs became inaccessible between 2001 and 2007.

As funding decreased, the bus system turned to other sources to make up the difference. Henken says a streak of good luck – $36.6 million of leftover federal money from 1991 bought new buses in 2012, while $12.7 million from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program that was supposed to fund the failed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail instead went to fund new bus routes – has removed the urgency of stabilizing funding. “That’s the irony, that the ability of MCTS and county leaders to creatively secure short-term solutions has reduced the pressure on the state legislature to help Milwaukee County develop long-term sustainable solutions,” he says.

But that federal money might not always be there. “There’s a hole there, and sooner or later, they’re going to run out of magical fixes, creative fixes to plug the hole,” Henken says. “It’s the definitive example of a structural gap that is going to require some new form of sustainable revenue or some substantial cuts in transit service.”

Or a new company to find millions of dollars in savings.

Bill Sell is rarely back in his childhood hometown of Hales Corners. The 74-year-old Bay View resident gave up his car a decade ago and relies on a combination of his bike, buses and rides from friends to get around.

The road back to Hales Corners takes him past the house where he was born, where his grandmother lived, and where he and his siblings used to ride the interurban train to visit her. That house now sits boarded up on the corner of West Lapham Boulevard and South Cesar E. Chavez Drive in a blighted area of Milwaukee where foreclosed homes sell for $27,000.

When he was 5, his family moved out to Hales Corners, within a stone’s throw of the interurban station that used to sit in the town’s triangle – an area now defined by the intersection of Forest Home Avenue, 108th Street and Janesville Road. That house is gone now, as are most of the buildings Sell remembers from his childhood. Bosch Tavern is a rare survivor. The tavern opened in 1996 in the historic Bosch Hotel, which was built at the turn of the century specifically to serve the passengers of the interurban trains.

But Sell’s visit in mid-September is to a much more modern building – the Hales Corners City Hall – where he’s attending a meeting of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council of Milwaukee County, a group of leaders from the county’s 19 municipalities, on the promise of hearing from MV Transportation.

As various mayors take their seats and set up their name tags, Sell sits silently. He’s the chair of the Transit Services Advisory Committee and takes transit issues very seriously. He’s scribbled some notes in a notepad; his hands are folded on the table. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele walks in a few minutes late, and – with a nod to chairman and Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor – takes a seat near the end of the table.

The council skims over the part of the agenda where MV Transportation was supposed to speak, and it’s brought to Taylor’s attention. He says MV contacted him and asked if that matter could be tabled because it was still in talks with Milwaukee County. “I said absolutely,” he says. And just like that, the matter is tabled indefinitely. The Milwaukee County Supervisors wanted to talk to MV before MV talked to the ICC.

This is another setback for transit enthusiasts like Bill Sell and organizations like Milwaukee Transport Services, another example of how the process has been hidden behind opaque, bureaucratic glass.

For its part, MV Transportation has not been shy about putting down roots in the community. And it certainly hasn’t waited for the County Board to vote. As for the ICC meeting, W.C. Pihl, MV’s executive vice president of business development, says, “All we were going to do was introduce ourselves.”

But the company’s entry into the community started much, much earlier. Before submitting its bid this summer, MV sent up a team to do research and determine how efficient the system was. And it found there was a lot to be done. “That’s not unusual when you find a system that’s been closed for 38 years,” MV’s CEO Carter Pate says. “You’re not forcing change into the system when you’ve had the same provider and everybody’s comfortable.”

MV would certainly be a change, as would Pate. Pate is not from Milwaukee. Just the way he says Milwaukee – rushing through the “l” and lingering on the second syllable – gives him away. Pate took the helm of MV Transportation two years ago, but says his first job was in transportation. “When I was 16, I was a school bus driver,” he says. “I understand this from what it’s like to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, get ready, warm up your bus, clean it up, get to your route on time.”

And it’s allegiance to the drivers that Pate claims makes MV different. “The drivers are the soul of the business,” he says. One of the promises MV is making to current MCTS drivers – many of whom would be hired on at MV – is to fully fund their pension plan. The pension was fully funded in 2001 but has been losing ground since – falling to 77.8 percent at the beginning of 2013, according to MV’s calculations.

But Rick Bassler, acting president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 (the bus driver union), is not buying that claim. He estimates it would take $77 million to fully fund the pension plan. “It’s not even realistic to make a statement like that,” he says.

In fact, he says, when MV Transportation spoke to the union at a Sept. 5 meeting, it seemed as if the company’s representatives would say anything to please the drivers. “Anything they wanted, they were going to say yes to,” Bassler says.

He questions the company’s knowledge of how to run fixed-route transit bus systems – as opposed to paratransit, where the routes vary day to day. At that same meeting, a question arose about layovers, the point in a route where the bus driver gets a break. “[They] didn’t know what that was,” he says. “I had to explain that to them.”

The relationship started out on a sour note when MV staff started reaching out to union members individually at work sites. “They kind of infiltrated our membership,” Bassler says. In response, he scheduled the Sept. 5 meeting, though it did little to quell his fears.

Since then, Bassler and the union have collected a packet of information containing documents from other ATU branches throughout the country about various issues with MV. Complaints range from too-long shifts, sexual abuse of passengers by drivers, late and no-show buses, and fleet maintenance worries.

To put it in perspective, the union has a rocky relationship with MTS. “It’s not a happy family,” Bassler says. “But we know what we have here. We’d much rather deal with the people we’ve been dealing with for the past 38 years than with people coming in.”

More than a better relationship with the union, MV promises efficiency and savings. Remember those Firestone tires MTS currently leases for $338 a pop? MV purchases brand-new tires at $230 each. But MTS’ tires last for 77,000 miles; MV’s last for 60,000 miles. The savings per mile comes down to hundredths of pennies, but more than $9,000 per year.

Many of the other improvements MV promises to put into operation – a new farebox system, a mobile app – are things MTS does not currently have, though it plans to implement many of them in the future.

While MV focuses on a contract to operate a 720-bus system in Orange County, where it saved the system $40 million (“I think they’re pretty excited about what’s going on in Orange County,” Pate says), critics focus on the company’s contract in Fairfield, Calif., where it racked up 295 fines from 2008-2010. The $164,000 in fines ranged from a high preventable accident rate to drivers using cell phones and speeding.

Another criticism of MV comes from its for-profit status. Pate laughs at the insinuation. “That’s a red herring,” he says. “Every city we’ve ever taken over is, by its very charter, a non-for-profit. How is it possible that in every city we go into that was a nonprofit do we find 10, 15, 25 million dollars in savings in technology? The real fact of the matter is that in the for-profit business, you either get highly efficient, you eliminate waste, you build on technology, you consolidate your buying – all of that – or you will not survive.”

Abele calls the for-profit criticism a misconception. The operator – MV or anyone else – is not allowed to take profit out of the system, he says. “The way the contract is written is that there’s an incentive to the provider to add service,” he says. Those incentives might come in the form of “performance incentive payments,” as noted in the RFP. And Pate has a plan for those. “As we get efficiencies, we have a plan to split it with the employees,” he says. “What we think is that they’ll be key in helping us find those efficiencies if they’ve got a stake in the game.”

For his part, Abele is hoping to add 20,000 miles to the bus system in 2014 – regardless of the system’s operator. He also wants to reduce the paratransit fares by $1.

Paratransit is a relatively new – and essential – part of MTS’ job. All transit systems are required to operate alternative transit – usually vans – for people who are not able to take fixed route transit because of mental or physical disabilities. A bidding process for the paratransit system that went awry and will cost the county millions might have spurred the county to replace MTS.

Many, including former MCTS director of operations, Michael Vebber, are urging Milwaukee County Supervisors to do their research before voting. In a letter to Marina Dimitrijevic, the board chairwoman, Vebber says the decision cannot be a “knee jerk reaction to last year’s emergency paratransit contracts, as appears to be the case. … A decision to change management teams must be deliberative and open.”

Abele denies the suggestion that awarding the contract to MV is punishment for the paratransit debacle earlier this year. “To me, the decision wasn’t a punitive one,” he says. “To be clear, it is not the case that I wouldn’t have explored the idea even if things were going better than they were.”

But the timing is just too coincidental.

The year 2000 might have marked the beginning of the end for Milwaukee Transport Services. Not only did transit funding begin to stagnate, but MTS also took over the management of the county’s paratransit system.

In the summer of 2012, MTS was bidding out the contract for paratransit. After errors by MTS, the companies bidding for the contract and federal agencies, two emergency contracts were signed just two weeks before the county would have been left without an operating paratransit system – which would have violated federal law. Those contracts will end up costing the county an extra $8.6 million over the next three years. That figure was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 17, 2013, and confirmed by a county audit released April 15.

On April 29 of this year, the county executive’s office issued a Request For Proposal to operate the entire system, including oversight of paratransit. Abele says he was always planning to issue the RFP. “I’ve heard a lot of concerns and had some of my own, not least the paratransit contact that ended up costing a lot more than it needed to,” he says. “While I’m told that the contract has been bid out before, at least in the relatively recent past, they haven’t gotten a lot of competing proposals. In some cases, no one else has submitted, which makes me sort of wonder how seriously they were looking for alternatives.”

Abele, though, is serious. “Regardless of who ends up as the operator, the county has more accountability than it did before,” he says. “When there have been issues with transit, there’s a very limited amount of things this office can do because of the way [the contract is] written.”

With the new MCTS contract, that would change. He says the deliverables are more clearly spelled out. “Like all contracts,” says the county exec, “it’s subject to the board’s yea or nay.”

But a lawsuit brought by MTS against the county has already delayed that vote. After the county sent out the intent to award letter (saying the contract was going to MV Transportation), MTS sent an open records request to retrieve MV’s proposal so they could formulate an appeal. The county categorically denied that request. So MTS sued.

Abele’s original goal was to have the County Board vote on Sept. 26. The day before that meeting, County Supervisor Jason Haas said the board hadn’t “received anything from the administration that we can act on.” MTS’ previous contract was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2013. As that date loomed, more information came to light. Another bidder, French Veolia Transportation, had filed an appeal, and MTS sought a restraining order to bar the county from contract talks with MV.

And on Oct. 25, a one-year contract extension with MTS was signed – though the contract can be canceled at any time with 90 days notice.

Meanwhile, MV continued its inroads into Milwaukee. On Sept. 8, Feysan Lodde, one of MV’s founders, met with two drivers – who have a combined 35 years of experience – in the lobby of the Residence Inn in Downtown Milwaukee, the hotel that has served as MV’s home base. The meeting was supposed to last for 30 minutes but stretched to 90. “[Lodde] really wanted them to understand that she is committed to making sure that they have a voice in what happens here in Milwaukee and what happens across the country in MV Transportation,” says Nikki Frenney, MV’s director of communications.

Although MV has been reaching out to drivers, administrative staff is another story. MV claims 98 percent of the staff in Orange County decided to stay on with MV when they took over that system, but a similar arrangement with MTS has not been discussed. “We haven’t finished our analysis yet,” Pate says.

That analysis likely will have to wait until the lawsuit is settled. Still, MV Transportation isn’t wasting any time. Frenney and W.C. Pihl, executive vice president of business development, attended the Sept. 11 meeting of the county’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee, not as speakers or invited guests, but rather as fact-finders. The duo sat in the back of a small room in the county courthouse, whispering about ways they could improve the current system – using smaller buses and changing up the routes. Concerns over whether or not the contract would be awarded were for someone else to worry about. “We were in there designing the system,” Frenney says. While starkly presumptuous, the statement punctuates the company’s confidence that the deal will go through. MV has, after all, converted 150 similar systems in just six years.

Meanwhile, in a conference room at the MCTS office across the street from the fleet repair shop, the transit company’s managing director Giugno was feeling protective of MTS and its future. MTS exists solely to operate the transit system, he points out.

So, if it no longer holds the contract, would the organization cease to exist? He is asked: Could this be the end of the line for MTS?

Giugno pauses, pondering the question. “We’ve been having discussions to look at that possibility,” he starts. “There’s a lot of moving parts with that. A lot would depend upon…” he trails off. “I can’t answer that. Hopefully we don’t have to talk about that.”

And, for now anyway, they won’t have to. MTS won this battle, but the one-year extension is just that: an extension. The transit system still faces a troubled budget, declining ridership and decreasing service. The fight to keep Milwaukee’s public transit system alive is far from over.

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Abby Callard was an assistant editor at Milwaukee Magazine from 2012-2014. Her journalistic pursuits have seen her covering the Hispanic community in mid-Missouri, politics in Washington, D.C., art and culture for Smithsonian magazine, the social enterprise space in India and health care in Chicago. Abby has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.