When Shawn J. Brown-Troop fell behind on car payments, he lost more than his car. He had to give up his job in New Berlin, reachable only by driving from his home in Milwaukee.
"If there was a bus going out there, I'd still be working, even if it was an hour trip," said Brown-Troop, 26, who operated overhead cranes at Trulite Glass.
Unemployed since August, he hunts for jobs nearly every day. But again, so many of the good entry-level positions are out of reach, in cities like Oak Creek or Menomonee Falls, he said.
Brown-Troop is one of thousands of Milwaukee residents who struggle to find work without a car as jobs grow outside the city's borders, beyond the reach of an anemic county transit system.
A report released recently by the Public Policy Forum identified 10 job hubs that would most benefit from transit connections with Milwaukee, mostly industrial parks in suburban cities like Germantown and New Berlin. But when researchers modeled new bus routes for reverse commuters, there were a host of problems: unsustainable costs, distances that are too far to walk from bus stops to workplaces, unreasonable commute times and more.
Studies show that since 1980, the region has gained more than 120,000 jobs, while the number of jobs in the city of Milwaukee has dropped 14%. That presents an acute problem when more than 13% of Milwaukee workers don't have access to a car, and those residents lost access to as many as 40,000 jobs in the 2000s because of funding cuts to transit services, according to a 2008 report by the UWM Center for Economic Development.
Jovo Potkonjak, a manager at the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, who helps unemployed workers find jobs, sometimes has thousands of eligible candidates for jobs. But if the work is not reachable by public transit, few apply.
Lou Ann Koval, vice president of human resources at HB Performance Systems Inc., a brake manufacturer for power sports in Mequon, said reliable transportation is a consistent concern for manufacturing companies. The company struggles to fill entry-level jobs, but Koval said she's missing out on good candidates in Milwaukee who don't have a car.
"We have a lot of need for people, and we'll train them," Koval said. "But transportation is a real impediment. We're a union shop, and attendance is critical. If you're a half-minute late, that's a problem."
Public Policy Forum Director Rob Henken said the models confirmed that solving the problem by simply extending bus services would be a challenge.
Kerry Thomas, interim executive director at the nonprofit Transit NOW, is optimistic that a solution is out there. Policy-makers and planners haven't worked much on the transportation piece of workforce planning, she said, and it's going to take creative problem-solving.
"We knew if it were easy it would be done by now," she said. "In the past, there hasn't been a workforce goal with transportation, and we need to rethink our approach to how we develop transit. This is something that could help spur the economy in a big way."
Some observers point to the need for a regional transportation system, which would mirror the flexible boundaries of today's economy.
"Metro Milwaukee is one integrated, functioning, regional economy, and our governance structure including transportation is about a century behind that," said Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, adding that county boundaries were drawn according to how far a horse could ride in a day from the county seat. "A bus service set up to serve a horse and buggy system isn't going to work in a global economy."
Others have long pointed out shortcomings in the way transit is funded in southeastern Wisconsin, depending heavily on state and federal dollars. Most metro areas like Milwaukee have dedicated sources like a local sales tax.
"It's why many areas have been able to expand transit service and we don't," said Ken Yunker, executive director at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.