I’ll admit it — I haven’t been on a bus in over 15 years. I am fortunate to have a driver’s license and a fuel efficient Toyota (don’t worry, it’s not on the recall list.) I drive to work, to the grocery store, to the theater and to the mall. I like the convenience and ease of hopping in my car whenever I want and going wherever I want.
When I was a child and teen, I rode the bus everywhere. My grandmother taught me how to read a schedule, use a transfer and pull the wire above the window to alert the driver to my stop. Eventually, I taught many of my friends to ride the bus, which we used to get to Southridge for some serious pre-license mall cruising and to get to Wisconsin Lutheran High School. Once there I made many friends from all over the county, and having the bus available made visiting them even easier. Route 67 took me to a boyfriend’s house on Capitol Drive, while Route 51 ended in adventures at South Shore Park. And a few transfers got me to Bradford Beach, Brady Street and even the Oriental Theater for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
However, there are others who don’t have the legal or financial freedom to have a car and operate it. According to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 248,000 people over the age of 18 in Milwaukee County cannot legally drive. Additionally, there are over 40,000 jobs within the county that are inaccessible to those citizens due to lack of public transportation.
Those numbers should shock us all. That’s 35 percent of all the adults in the county who have no independent way to get to work, school, the store or entertainment in the county.
But lately the discussion about transit in Milwaukee has focused on high speed rail between here and Madison. Politicians are waging a battle over the $825 million in federal funds to initially build and purchase train cars. Pundits are sniping over whether the train is necessary. A speaker at a recent transportation meeting said bringing high-speed rail to the region would increase the need for short route mass transit, so we should build it and the buses will come.
Milwaukee’s mayor and the county executive have opposing views on transit. Mayor Tom Barrett is solidly on board with the high-speed train, would like to see light-rail throughout the county and run a tracked streetcar in the downtown business district. County Executive Scott Walker is opposed to trains and recently told me that he would like to see funds used to preserve and expand the current Milwaukee County Transit System. However, he is opposed to a voter-approved sales tax increase to help fund MCTS and he recently approved an upgrade in fare boxes that will eliminate the free, one-hour transfer and force riders to pay full fares if they don’t purchase weekly or monthly passes.
All of these plans have merit, but right now I think the priorities are out of whack. What we need now is to focus on cheap, readily available and reliable transportation, not a a streetcar that will circle downtown or a train that will connect us with Cleveland and the Twin Cities.
We need bus service that will take people to jobs in Franklin, Oak Creek and South Milwaukee. We also need an agreement that will expand service into Waukesha, Washington, Racine and Kenosha counties so available labor in the inner city can get to suburban industrial sites. We need to have alternatives to congested roads and the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, a mess we had a small taste of in late March.
A Regional Transit Authority is a great idea, but getting complete agreement on that will be politically difficult. The legislature is considering a bill to allow for the creative of interim RTA’s, but the Waukesha and Washington county Board of Supervisors have already voted to not take part in any type of transit agreement with Milwaukee. Some pundits are even floating an idea that if Waukesha won’t play on transit Milwaukee should withhold access to Lake Michigan water.
Milwaukee County had an opportunity to better fund and even expand its bus service with the voter-approved one percent increase in the sales tax, but Gov. Doyle vetoed its approval, because it wasn’t tied to the entire RTA project. He has taken and all-or-nothing stance that continues to hurt current and prospective riders in Milwaukee.
Riders (and potential riders) of MCTS need to stand up and say enough. We need to get Doyle, Walker, Barrett and other elected officials to stop the “build and they will come” or “starve it and they’ll all get cars” mentality and restore and expand bus service in Milwaukee County.
Our economy depends on it.