The Milwaukee County Transit System is celebrating it’s 150th birthday this month, but the future for the buses looks bleak.

MCTS Acting Director Anita Gulotta-Connelly told county officials there would be a $10.2 million shortfall in 2011 if services remain at the levels currently in place. A combination of reduced ridership, the loss of Milwaukee Public Schools student ridership and a reduction in state and federal aid have dropped estimated revenue levels. She suggested a number of solutions to close the gap — cutting services, increasing fares, reducing paratransit services, finding internal savings or receiving more dollars from the county.

The last solution is off the table, according to County Executive Scott Walker’s Chief of Staff, Tom Naradelli. “There will be no tax increases.”

Walker has previously said that he does not want to see cuts to paratransit, which provides services to the elderly and handicapped. MCTS provides services well beyond the federal requirements, but cutting to the minimum required would eliminate services to 1,500 riders. The savings from paratransit cuts could total $1.8 million, the expected  reduction in federal aid for the program.

Jackie Janz, an MCTS spokeswoman, said they have cut to the bone and that there is “no more fat left.”  The company’s unions recently agreed to a pay freeze and to contribute more toward their own health premiums to reduce costs and save their jobs.

If not for a combination of $58.4 million in federal stimulus funds and county bonding the purchase of 125 new buses, new fare boxes, a new annunciator system and a replacement roof on the Fond du Lac Avenue administration building would not have been possible this year. Those funds will not be available in the future.

Walker has said he would consider fare increases, but according to a formula used by MCTS, a 1 percent increase in fares would lead to a .3 percent decrease in ridership. For example, raising the fare from $2.25 to $2.50 (an 11 percent increase) could lead to the loss of 1.3 million riders. That doesn’t sound like a way to encourage more bus usage.

With all the options being bad ones, Gulotta-Connelly said the system needs a dedicated source of revenue to keep buses on the streets of Milwaukee. There is a source available, as county residents voted in 2008 for a sales tax to support transit. But Gov. Jim Doyle refused to allow it because he wants a regional transportation system in Southeastern Wisconsin.

It’s a noble idea to want high-speed trains, light rail, streetcars and buses to provide transportation between major metropolitan areas, suburbs and neighborhoods. And there are many people who believe that the bus system will rebound as soon as the trains and streetcars are in place. They argue that people will use the streetcar to get around downtown Milwaukee after they use an MCTS express bus to get to the center of the city. Once the trains are in place and people are using them the bus service will benefit by increased tourist and commuter use. How or why that will happen has never been fully explained by the train proponents.

But time is running out for MCTS. It needs an infusion of cash to maintain and expand bus routes and service times now, or there won’t be a bus service in place for all those train riders and streetcar commuters to use. We need all of the $91.5 million in federal transit funds held between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to be directed to the saving of MCTS. We need to stop chasing dollars to replace trains we ripped out 50 years ago and find the dollars for buses.

We need to encourage people to actually ride the buses  and we need to make them affordable and convenient. We can’t wait another four or five years for the approvals, preliminary engineering and construction of theMilwaukee Streetcar. We can’t wait for the hip and cool people to get off a train in search of a bus, because by then the buses will be gone.

The bus routes that remain are by no means perfect. They do not reach all of the available jobs in Milwaukee County and there have been cutbacks in routes that run to neighboring counties. And due to crippling budget cuts, they are less frequent.

More than 85% of all Milwaukee County residents are within walking distance of a regularly scheduled bus route. You can still get on a bus at Southridge and get to Bayshore, albeit with a few transfers, or hop on the Freeway Flyer in Menomonee Falls and arrive downtown without frazzling your nerves.

We can’t waste the resource we currently have that provides commuting options and transportation to the poor, elderly or handicapped. We need to focus on what we can still afford to save, not on what we want and cannot pay for. We need to lobby for and support MCTS.

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