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Could the Milwaukee County Transit System become a regional transit authority?

27 Jun 2024 8:49 AM | WIPTA Admin (Administrator)

MILWAUKEE – As the Milwaukee County Transit System looks to grow its footprint in the region, while also juggling the complex funding issues the body has navigated for years, how realistic is the idea of a wider-reaching regional transit authority across not just Milwaukee County, but more of Southeast Wisconsin?

That idea was floated to begin last Wednesday’s Milwaukee County Committee on Transportation and Transit meeting. MCTS Deputy Director Julie Esch says the system is considering a bid to manage both The Hop streetcar and Waukesha METRO when their respective contracts become available later this year and in 2025, respectively.

“Not own the assets, but manage it” said Esch, adding that the FlexRide MKE program could also be brought under the MCTS umbrella within an RTA model.

MCTS President and Managing Director Denise Wandke says a regional transit authority would look more attractive to potential funding sources. “We’re one of the very few systems of our size that don’t have dedicated funding, and I feel that we should look at different ways that we can incorporate some of these other mobility types in order to qualify for an RTA or find additional funding” said Wandke. “It’s putting these things under one roof, and hoping people see the impact that we have, and getting us to that type of funding.”

Currently, mass transportation projects compete for state funds with other non-transit-related projects under the General Purpose Revenue Fund, a move instituted in 2023 by state Republicans. Before that, those transit projects would seek funds from the separate Transportation Fund.

The idea of a regional transit authority in Southeast Wisconsin has been considered before. When a Milwaukee-to-Kenosha commuter rail network was originally proposed in 2009, the project included an RTA to oversee the development and execution of the line. That idea was scrubbed by the state Legislature in 2011 under then-Governor Scott Walker. Another RTA proposed around the same time that would have included MCTS never saw mass support from local elected officials at the time.

While MCTS is not operated by the city, there is support for the idea of a RTA from Milwaukee leadership. In a statement from the office of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, his spokesperson Jeff Fleming tells me the city is open to strengthening the existing relationship between Milwaukee and MCTS, which could also include a change in hands of management operations for The Hop. “If we are going to Grow Milwaukee and strengthen our economic competitiveness as a metro area, we will need a strong and robust public transit system. Whether that should take the form of a formal regional transit authority, mutually-beneficial operating agreements, or other approaches is worth exploring and discussing, including how different options could support the operation and expansion of The Hop” said Fleming.

Third District Alderman Jonathan Brostoff, a noted supporter of transit infrastructure projects amongst his colleagues at City Hall, was even stronger in his conviction that an RTA would benefit the city when I asked him about the concept after the June 11th meeting of the Common Council. Brostoff says a RTA would make systems like The Hop more attractive to federal funding sources than the city asking for the money.

“I think it’s important to keep all options on the table and explore what’s going to be best for the folks of Milwaukee. The county does have a long history and a lot of experience in running a transportation system. Let’s have those conversations and see what’s best for Milwaukeeans” says Brostoff.

In the past, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 has been wary of wider support for RTAs due to legislative opposition. A comment from the union was not provided by the time of this article’s publication.

MCTS told WTMJ last week Wednesday that while no official proposals have been drafted, it is looking ahead at the next structural budget gap coming in 2027, and pursuing all angles to find a solution that leads to solvency. A report by the Milwaukee County Comptroller’s office indicated that by 2027, the estimated gap between operating expenditures and revenues will hit 12.6 million dollars, growing to 17.5 million by 2029, and will “likely fall to the property tax unless new or increased revenue sources are secured.”

While a regional transit authority remains purely hypothetical at this point, one way transit systems in Southeast Wisconsin have become more homogenized is through fare collection under WisGO, which took over MCTS fares from the old M-Card system in 2023. In addition to MCTS, four other transit networks in Wisconsin are either under the WisGO umbrella or will be at least partially on the network by the end of this year:

“Regarding WisGo, the goal is to make travel across the region easy, and having one easy way to pay is helping us meet that goal.” says MCTS Marketing and Communications Manager Anna Schryver.

Read the full article here.

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