County Executive Chris Abele Announces SAVE Transit Plan

Sept. 30, 2016
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, joined by transit advocates, has announced his SAVE Transit Plan to generate dedicated funding for transit, preserve the GO Pass, and invest in the future with Bus Rapid Transit.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, joined by transit advocates, has announced his SAVE Transit Plan to generate dedicated funding for transit, preserve the GO Pass, and invest in the future with Bus Rapid Transit.

Without new revenue and some operational changes, the transit system in Milwaukee County is at risk; fares could rise, service could be cut, and routes could be eliminated. Doing nothing also jeopardizes the County’s overall bottom line. In the past five years, the county executive has been able to substantially lower the County’s structural deficit and pay off debt, but this improvement can’t continue without new revenue.

The SAVE Transit Plan, a cornerstone of Abele’s forthcoming 2017 Proposed Budget, recognizes that our transit system is a priority and that it must be Sustainable, Affordable, Visionary, and Efficient. The nonpartisan Public Policy Forum earlier this month released an analysis of the County’s transportation infrastructure needs, which detailed significant challenges ahead as state and federal funding for transportation continues to dwindle while costs continue to rise. The Public Policy Forum cited the replacement schedule for the County’s bus fleet as the “single biggest transportation infrastructure challenge” facing Milwaukee County.  Of the County’s 436 buses, 30% have reached 500,000 revenue miles, which is the standard threshold for replacement.

Transit is a major driver of economic development, connecting people with jobs and opportunity all over the County, and also improves quality of life for thousands of people who rely on our transit system every day. That is why, under the county executive’s leadership over the past five years, Milwaukee County was able to reverse a 10 year trend of fare increases, route cuts, or both, without raising taxes. Now, as the Public Policy Forum observed, we are at a fork in the road; in order to preserve the progress we’ve made and have the ability to make smart investments with an eye towards the future, we must take action. State and federal funding for transportation has been steadily decreasing but the demand for a sustainable transit system has not, nor has the County’s responsibility to pay for bus replacements, parkways, and bridges.

The first component of the SAVE Transit Plan is a dedicated source of funding for transit, through a $60 per year vehicle registration fee (VRF).

A VRF is the only revenue option legally available to the County and will generate approximately $27 million in revenue per year. Unlike a sales tax increase, no additional state approval is required for the County to implement a vehicle registration fee. This fee, which averages out to $5 per month, is only assessed on people who own and operate cars, as opposed to a sales tax that would be applied across the board. The decision to implement a vehicle registration fee came after extensive community input. The County Executive heard loud and clear that the GO Pass is a priority for the community and they were open to a vehicle registration fee as a funding source.

Also based on community feedback, the County Executive is putting together a taskforce with public and private stakeholders that will examine ways to moderate the impact of a vehicle registration fee on low-income households. One option, available only with a State Statute change, is to index the Fee based on value and/or age of the vehicle. This is a model used by other states and could be effective in Milwaukee County.

The $27 million per year generated by a $60 annual VRF is enough to fund all of the County’s transportation infrastructure costs, to include annual bus replacements, and County highway, parkway, and bridge repairs that typically are financed through the Parks Department, freeing up more funds in the Parks budget. County highways, parkways and transit are vital resources to many residents, which is why the county executive has taken a deliberate approach to catch up on deferred maintenance. The Menomonee River Parkway is a great example of that success.

Other projects that can begin earlier or be completed sooner because of this cash influx include the KK Parkway, Lake Park Ravine Bridge, bridges in Whitnall Park, and portions of the Oak Leaf, Root River, and Honey Creek Parkways.  While the dialogue about how to meet our transportation needs continues at the State level, the county executive is not willing to kick the can down the road when it comes to funding our infrastructure needs, nor is he willing to run up the County’s credit card.

In addition to funding critical infrastructure needs, revenue generated by the VRF will also go towards operating costs related to preserving the GO Pass. The GO Pass, while a well-intentioned effort by supervisors that many people have come to rely on, is simply not sustainable in its current form. In just three years, the GO Pass will have caused a $12 million deficit. The transit system is in desperate need of revenue, and the future of the transit system is in jeopardy if nothing is done to the GO Pass program. Nearly 25 percent of all transit riders currently use a GO Pass to receive free rides.

However, the county executive is not willing to eliminate this program, and instead has worked with seniors, the disability community, transit supporters, local businesses, and students to find a way to improve the delivery of this program so that everyone can enjoy a robust transit system for years to come. Going forward, individuals who receive the Go Pass will pay a one-time $5 fee to cover the issuance of the GO Pass card and will pay a 25 cent per ride fare. As well, eligibility for the GO Pass will now be in line with eligibility for other government programs. To qualify for the GO Pass, seniors and individuals with disabilities must also be eligible for SSI, SSDI, EBD, or FoodShares. Administration of the GO Pass will shift from MCTS to the Aging and Disability Resource Centers. We believe that this change may also come with an added benefit – by bringing more people into the resource centers, more people may enroll in other programs for which they qualify. The county executive also plans to establish a committee of stakeholders that will determine the best way to implement these changes.

These changes, along with the increased revenue generated by the VRF, will ensure that the GO Pass is available for our most vulnerable citizens.

The final component to the SAVE Transit Plan is an investment in modernization, Bus Rapid Transit. In addition to keeping transit affordable for users, the county executive believes we must always look for ways to innovate. Bus Rapid Transit, which recently won from the federal government approval to move into the Project Development phase, is Milwaukee County’s next big project. It will efficiently and affordably connect more people to more jobs while helping create a climate that attracts new businesses and new workers to Milwaukee. A diversified mass transit system is essential to the growth of the entire region, and BRT is a major step toward modernizing our transit system in a responsible and sustainable way. The proposed budget includes just under $44 million for the next steps on BRT.

In June and July, BRT won the support of the cities of Wauwatosa and Milwaukee, as well as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

If we can’t ensure that our transit system is healthy and sustainable by addressing the deficit and securing dedicated funding, we won’t be in a position to expand the Bus Rapid Transit project or to find the next innovation that will improve our system.