The proposal for a regional transit authority (RTA) to create a 0.5 percent sales tax in Milwaukee County to fund the bus system died when the state Legislature failed to vote on it before the end of the legislative session last week.
Some officials say the county’s bus system is in dire financial condition and will need to make significant cuts if it continues to rely on county property taxes for a portion of its budget.
Without a dedicated funding source, such as a sales tax, for transit, the Milwaukee County Transit System may have to eliminate the freeway fliers and cut back to a core service between Silver Spring Drive on the north and Oklahoma Avenue on the south, said County Board spokesman Harold Mester. Night and weekend service may also have to be cut back, he said.
“There would certainly be areas that are cut,” Mester said. “There are businesses that would be severely impacted because they would not be able to connect their workers to jobs.”
“We’re going to be facing cuts,” said Milwaukee County Transit System spokeswoman Jacqueline Janz. But she said it is too early to know what cuts will occur until the county tells the bus system how much funding it will get for the next budget. About 11 percent of the bus system’s funds come from the county, 40 percent comes from the state, 13 percent from the federal government and 35 percent from fare revenues.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a Republican candidate for governor, has opposed a sales tax increase for the Milwaukee County bus system. Walker is not planning to recommend cuts to the bus system, said Tom Nardelli, Walker’s chief of staff.
“We plan to maintain the existing bus routes in our next budget,” Nardelli said.
The Milwaukee County Transit System has cut service by 20 percent during the last eight years and fares have increased by 33 percent since 2000, to $2.25 per adult ride, Janz said.
The financial condition of the bus system has concerned Milwaukee officials for years. A 2008 Public Policy Forum report projected that the Milwaukee County Transit System would have an $18.3 million budget deficit this year, a $23.7 million budget deficit in 2011 and a $21.1 million budget deficit in 2012. The transit system received about $25 million from the federal stimulus bill, allowing it to purchase several new buses and delay its budget problems by one year, Janz said.
Some county officials say the only solution to the bus system’s financial woes is to create a dedicated funding source, such as a sales tax, so the bus system does not have to compete with other services for the county’s property tax revenue.
Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway is hopeful that Gov. Jim Doyle will call a special session of the Legislature to re-consider the RTA sales tax proposal. Doyle vetoed a 0.65 percent sales tax to fund Milwaukee County buses and public safety that the Legislature had included in the last state budget.
“(Holloway) doesn’t feel the governor wants the death of the Milwaukee County Transit System to be part of his legacy,” Mester said. “Because of the veto, the onus is on the governor to get something done.”
A spokesperson for Doyle could not be reached for comment.
The death of the RTA proposal also puts plans for a commuter rail line between Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee in limbo. The so-called KRM project needs significant federal funds.
“The feds have told us that without a stable bus system, they aren’t going to approve the KRM project,” Mester said.