Transit in Milwaukee Looking Forward to Upgrades

March 6, 2013
Despite the ongoing funding challenges MCTS has faced, they are moving ahead with improved service for its riders with new vehicles and new technology.

Milwaukee County Transit System Managing Director Lloyd Grant says his story starts with his parents.

In the 1940s, his parents moved from a farming community in the South to Milwaukee, Wisc. They raised nine kids in poverty and raised them with respect for discipline, education, hard work, community and family.

They started a dry-cleaning business in Milwaukee with about $26 and ran it for about 38 years before they retired. Grant says he helped his parents operate the business until he went off to college. “I think that experience gave me an advantage of working with the community, understanding the importance of good customer service … and in the importance of giving back to the community.”

After college Grant applied for a position at MCTS in 1985 and was hired as an administrative assistant. The opportunity afforded a big-picture perspective working with both internal and external customers and he continued to move around the organization in all areas, getting to know the people, learning the processes, policies and procedures.

He’s been a part of the Milwaukee County transit system for just more than 28 years in various capacities, including manager of equipment engineering, director labor relations, equal employment opportunity officer and disadvantaged enterprise officer.

“What I found out after I became a member of the MCTS family is that people actually come here and grow roots; they stay and they don’t go away,” he says. “There are many employees that have 30, 35 years of service with the organization which I think is something rare to find in our community.

“One of the things that I really enjoy about running the transit system here in Milwaukee is that it’s my hometown. It’s a way to give back to the community.

MCTS Operations

Milwaukee Transport Services Inc. is not-for-profit organization contracted by Milwaukee County to manage the transit system and that partnership has been for 38 years now. In 1975 the private company that owned the transit was going out of business and the county purchased the system and set up the organization to continue that service.

“Our responsibility is the direct management of the day-to-day, directing the management and operation of the system and Milwaukee County provides the financial resources to operate the system,” Grant says. Milwaukee County also makes the transportation policy and owns the physical assets. “What we bring as a contractor is a workforce. We bring the expertise to the table.”

Milwaukee County does, from time to time, put out a management contract for bid.

The Milwaukee County Board is an elected board of 18 county supervisors and within the board, transit reports to the Transportation Public Works and Transit Committee. “Our role is to operate the system, but the county sets policy,” Grant says.

Funding for the system is comprised of nearly half from state funds, nearly 30 percent farebox, 13 percent from federal funds and 10 percent local funds. MCTS Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Jacqueline Janz says, “Locally, people don’t understand how high our recovery rate is.”

Grant says, “Funding is directly related to the amount of service that we can deliver in a given time.” He states, “The financial health of the system has, in fact, been declining.

“Over the last decade we have cut 20 percent of our service and fares were increased … to the tune of over 50 percent. That was necessary because of funding difficulties the system has been experiencing.

“We’ve become even more cost-effective. We’ve certainly downsized quite a bit so we run very efficient. That’s something we really take a lot of pride in doing.”

MCTS continues to rely on a property tax as a source of funding, as opposed to some form of dedicated funding.

In 2011, the system faced an unexpected challenge of a 10 percent cut in state aid. “We continue to feel the effects of that today,” says Grant. “And will for some years to come, although we are hopeful that funding will be restored whether it be in the state biannual budget or through legislation.

“The core issue is having adequate funding needed to provide service that is vital to so many.”

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development has done a number of studies looking at transit service and access to jobs in the Milwaukee area and a 2011 report looking at the impact of the then-proposed 2012 service reductions. It stated that with the 10 percent reduction in state operating assistance for public transportation, the reduction amounted to about $6.9 million for MCTS. It also pointed out that a provision in the budget limits increases in the property tax levy for counties and municipalities to make up the difference.

One of the advantages other systems have is a dedicated funding source for planning long-term, says Grant. “You can plan for projects and businesses can build around those projects because they know that the funding is there to support transit.

“In our case, where we don’t have that long-term funding source, we tend to operate on budget-to-budget, as well as any unexpected changes that may occur in funding at the state and federal level.”

Grant says it’s important to look at a long-term funding source with the federal government tightening its belt and the states are tightening their belts.

Technology Coming to the System

There are a number of projects MCTS has been working on, including, real-time information, new vehicles and new farecard technology.

With the real-time information, customers will be able to use their smartphones, as well as computers at home, to determine what the next arrival time of the bus is. “I think that will be an added benefit to the rider,” says Grant. “Less waiting time at stops and it makes the services easier for customer use.”

In 2011 35 new New Flyer Ind., buses were added to the fleet through $19.6 million in CMAQ funding. In the last three years, Grant says they’ve replaced 180 of their buses and this year will be adding 55 New Flyer buses. “We’re very excited that it goes toward our goal of providing our customers with quality service and we’re reducing our maintenance costs as well, ensuring that the service continues to be very reliable for our customers,” Grant says. “About half of the fleet will have been replaced in the last four years by the time we receive these new buses later this summer.”

A major undertaking that has been in the works is a fare collection system update. “Our current fareboxes are 27 years old and so we have awarded a contract to Scheidt & Bachmann to replace our entire fare collection system,” says Grant. The installation will be in late 2013.

Janz says St. Louis has a similar system in place so a couple personnel went down there to see it. “They’re not going to the smartcard right now, which we are going to.” Grant says, “We’re switching from the paper ticket and are going to gradually phase out those passes and convert over to the smartcard.

“As a result, we think this will lead to faster boarding for customers and also make payment of their fares much, much easier, so we’re pretty excited about this new system coming on board.”

He says they’ve been in contact with a number of agencies. “Just about every city in the nation has a major transit system; we’re a very small family. Why try to recreate the wheel. We’re learning from our friends in transit.

“It’s really helpful to learn [from other systems],” he continues, “But you have to build it toward your customers.

“Our fare system is totally different than any other fare structure at any other transit system, so the system is literally being built and designed from the ground up for the Milwaukee County Transit System,” Grant says. “It’s not the same as going to the local store and buying something off the shelf. It’s literally being built to your specifications to mirror what you have and to offer amenities and improvements to your service.

“We’re talking about a system we expect to have for the next two to three decades.”

Scheidt & Bachmann Vice President of Sales Simon Talbot says they are extremely honored to work with MCTS. The system will include a fully integrated Web portal and autoload student ID features and this systems’ value to the region is underscored not only by the features and data collected, but also by the low total cost of ownership through a integratable and flexible system.

Talbot points out two points to consider when procuring a fare collection system. Total cost of ownership is often underestimated within the operations of a fare collection backend, mainly due to costs for IT services, such as 24/7 monitoring, system administration and maintenance, PCI compliance, ensuring of security and availability of the backend and alike. He also suggests making sure the specification for components within the system are functional and not brand-specific, and leaving options for alternative suggestions to allow vendors to put their best solutions forward.

The new system will lead to changes in the fare structure, which Grant says will be worked out by late summer. MCTS works with nine colleges and universities for U-pass services. “I believe we were the first property to introduce the pass.” He explains, “There is a sticker attached to the student ID that validate it. We’re currently in communications with the universities of the fact that we’re going to be switching over. We’re trying to figure out whether they will be able to switch over to the smartcard or will we continue to work with the student IDs in some other form of path?”

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is switching over to a smartcard-based ID system starting this year with all students being rolled in over the next four years. Grant says they’re communicating with them to work out the details as he says he wants their cards to work on the new MCTS system.

Rider Programs

Aside from its passes for colleges and universities, there are a couple of other programs that have been successful for MCTS. The Commuter Value Program is where MCTS provides bus passes to employers for employees. Employers pay half the pass and the employee pays half the pass, so for $33, an employee can get a monthly pass. It’s been in place more than 8 years and Janz says they’re continuing to grow the program.

The other program that Janz says they’re fortunate to have been a partner with for 25 years is the Miller Light Free Ride Program for New Year’s Eve free ride service. MillerCoors sponsors the program and about 15 years ago they extended it to include St. Patrick’s Day, as well.

In the last five or so years, MillerCoors expanded the program. MillerCoors has a division focused on drinking responsibly and they expanded the program to include other communities, including Waukesha, Madison and Ozaukee in Wisconsin and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. “I can’t keep up with the cities they’re in,” Janz says. “There’s a number of them and I really think they’re going to keep going because it’s so successful; the program is such a good program.”

Janz continues, “We have people that ride that don’t normally ride, so they can try it; it’s easier to jump on a bus and not pay anything.

“We’re very fortunate, very happy that they have been such a great partner. Twenty-five years to stick with it is just incredible.”

Rider Support

MCTS was facing funding challenges long before the recession hit and that earlier downward spiral in funding contributed to vocal transit support in the community. Grant says those transit groups started forming before and while they’ve pushed ahead, MCTS also created an advisory group, the Transit Services Advisory Committee.

Grant says of the community support, “They started to speak out on their system. We said this is your system; we’re operating it.

“When I first started working, there were no transit groups and now there are several. It’s really a different atmosphere.”

While I was asking about recent support in light of the political climate, Janz says, “It’s hard to say there’s any one incident ... we were so embedded in our funding issues and our challenges, those groups have just knocked us out in being supportive and keeps our minds and focus on what we need to accomplish here to provide the  best service that we can.”

“We have a very strong transit community in Milwaukee,” says Grant.