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It is a little less than a mile from the nearest bus stop to Scan-Pac Manufacturing in Menomonee Falls. While there may be some days where a 25-minute walk is tolerable, Leon Road, a frontage road along I-41, is not exactly designed for pedestrians, and Wisconsin winters or hot summer days only make it worse.
For many suburban employers, transportation has often come up as a barrier in attracting workers. It also acts as a roadblock for un- and under-employed people, many of whom live on the north side of Milwaukee, in getting a job.
Craig Armstrong, president of Scan-Pac, has personally picked up employees in Milwaukee or paid for them to use an Uber. He said Scan-Pac’s production requires a number of hourly workers, and the reality is the company is recruiting from an income bracket where transportation is often an issue. Even when employees have a car, it can still be pretty unreliable.
“It is a real-world problem I don’t think many people think about in today’s age. They just assume people can get to work because everyone has a vehicle, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Armstrong said.
There have been previous efforts to improve transportation. A lawsuit settlement over the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange created a pool of money to support bus routes that went to Menomonee Falls, Germantown and New Berlin. While the JobLines, as they were called, had some success, the number of passengers per bus hour was lower than other Milwaukee County Transit System routes and the funding ran out in 2019, ending the service.
A new pilot program that launched in February is aiming to solve some of the problems the JobLines routes could not address. Designed as a last-mile solution, the FlexRide program offers workers from Milwaukee rides to employers in designated areas in Menomonee Falls and Butler. It also provides rides from three stops in Milwaukee.
Kevin Muhs, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said the commission and other organizations have been working on transportation solutions to connect employers with jobs to un- or under-employed people.
“Really the hang-up we’ve seen so far, specifically on the transportation piece, has always been gathering enough financial resources to move something forward,” Muhs said.
A National Science Foundation planning grant received by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee helped initially eliminate the funding roadblock. It allowed the research team to talk with both workers and businesses about what kind of system would work.
The initial grant was followed by a $1 million implementation grant, which allowed the system to go from the planning stage to become a reality. That grant should be enough to fund the pilot through October.
“The big thing it does is relieve the burden of who’s going to jump first,” Muhs said.
Since the program launched, a little more than 200 people have signed up and are now eligible for rides, according to Amanda Payne, senior vice president of public policy at the Waukesha County Business Alliance. Currently, participants must be Milwaukee residents and over the age of 18.
Among those who have signed up, 72% are unemployed and 83% do not currently have a vehicle, Payne said. Around three-quarters of those who signed up are Black, 58% are women and 56% live in households that make less than $1,500 per month.
Payne praised the work of Employ Milwaukee in building awareness for the pilot and connecting potential employees to available jobs.
Since the program launched, the number of participating companies has grown from 10 to 16. The pilot’s job board includes a variety of employers, including Alto-Shaam, Aramark, Arandell Corp., Bradley Corp., FedEx, Froedtert Health, Harley-Davidson, Scan-Pac and Western States. One of the employers on the job board, Leonardo DRS, moved its operations from the northwest side of Milwaukee to Menomonee Falls in 2018.
While there is strong interest in the program, Muhs acknowledged actual ridership could be higher.
“There’s a gap between the number of people who have signed up for it and the number of people who are actually using it,” he said.
Muhs said the groups behind the pilot made a point of marketing it to businesses paying family-sustaining wages. As a result, many of the current employees do have reliable transportation.
At Scan-Pac, Armstrong is taking steps to encourage employees to use the service, including reimbursing employees who use it and changing attendance policies to not penalize employees if they are late to work while using it.
“As with anything new, it takes a lot of effort to promote and make sure people are aware of it,” Armstrong said.
With around 150 of those who have signed up for the program currently unemployed, it will take time for them to connect with employers. Muhs said a ramp-up period should have been expected.
“The real key is growing the labor pool for businesses and growing access to opportunity for the workers,” he said. “That has been ramping up, but it does take time.”
Muhs said it will likely take another few months for ridership to pick up. Seeing an increase in usage is needed as the next step in potentially scaling FlexRide to other areas.
“Our hope is this is a solution that could be used throughout Waukesha County,” Payne said.
The Menomonee Falls and Butler areas were chosen for a number of reasons. Muhs noted the prior service by bus routes that aimed to connect workers and employers offered a chance for researchers to make comparisons. Payne said the areas also offer a mix of jobs in different industries, including manufacturing, hospitality and health care.
There is also geography. With the largest concentrations of un- or under-employed people in the region being on the north side of Milwaukee, it is just a few miles to get people to potential jobs in Menomonee Falls or Butler. Muhs said that same relative distance would make areas like Brookfield, New Berlin, Germantown, Mequon or even Franklin and Oak Creek options to replicate the FlexRide program.
“As you get further from those concentrations of un- and under-employed individuals, it doesn’t mean this service couldn’t work, but you do have to start thinking a little more creatively about how you combine people’s trips so that you’re not just driving two or three people 10 or 15 miles to work, because that’s just not going to work from a cost perspective,” Muhs said.
Ultimately, if the ridership does increase, expanding the program will come down to the availability of funding. Muhs said the program partners have talked with and explored a number of potential funding sources, including businesses, local governments, grants and philanthropy. He noted there is a limited fare charged for some rides and that could potentially be increased, although only to a certain point.
“You obviously can’t increase it to cover the cost of the trip,” Muhs said. “If you could do that then everybody would just be paying for their own Uber or Lyft to get to work.”
Payne said a lot of the groups working on FlexRide have been working on various transportation ideas for a number of years. She said they’ve known any solution would need to take a regional approach and be innovative. As for the willingness of employers to pay for programs that help connect workers to their jobs, Payne said many are already using corporate ride-share accounts or other solutions.
“I think a lot of our employers are already in that space,” Payne said. “It matters to them what the solution is and how effective it is.”
In general, Muhs said employers that the commission has spoken to are open to the idea.
“I don’t want to speak on their behalf because we haven’t had those concrete conversations yet, but generally they’ve indicated at least an interest in discussing what financial support would look like,” he said.
Armstrong said employers do not need to be overly involved in their employees’ lives but should also do simple things to help remove barriers preventing them from getting to work.
“As employers, we have to step beyond the boundaries of our traditional approach of, ‘put a job ad out and people will come flocking to us,’” he said. “We have to bridge that gap into the community and be part of the community in helping solve employment challenges, because (some) people just can’t get to work.”