Nothing Rapid About Bus Debate in Milwaukee

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Oh, wait. Now it’s a good idea?

When Governor Scott Walker was the county executive in Milwaukee, he advocated the creation of bus rapid transit system using federal funds that were set aside for transportation improvements in Milwaukee County. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (Walker’s opponent for governor in 2010) has the train disease, and he believed the $91.5 million in federal funds should be used instead for rebuilding a streetcar system. Those funds were first allocated to the area back when the Milwaukee Brewers used that hideous interlocking MB logo.

Congress decided to split the baby in half and gave Barrett $55 million for his electric streetcar system.  Unfortunately for Milwaukee taxpayers, the streetcar system is going to cost a lot more than $55 million. There have been estimates as high as $70 million just to move the utility infrastructure along the proposed line. Throw that on top of the estimated $9 million the city will have to pay for its share of the construction and the $2.62 million in annual operating costs.

Someone forgot to tell Barrett that the last time a trolley system was used to any good purpose was on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and even then it ran empty.

Meanwhile, the rest of the federal transit money, $36.6 million, was given to Milwaukee County to use for the bus rapid transit system. The money is currently sitting idle until Milwaukee County moves forward with plans for the bus rapid transit system.

A bus rapid transit system that uses modern buses making less frequent stops and uses traffic controls to cross the city much faster than normal buses. It has the advantages of light rail in that its speed makes it attractive to commuters. It also avoids the disadvantage of light rail – permanent, costly infrastructure that can’t change as transportation needs change.

When Walker proposed bus rapid transit for Milwaukee County (for reference sake, the current Brewers’ logo had just been unveiled), skeptics wondered if it was just an excuse to avoid supporting a light rail system like the city of Milwaukee wanted. Others, like then-County Supervisor Chris Larson, suspected Bus Rapid Transit was just a back door method of gutting the existing county bus system.

Larson said to WUWM, “So it’s not a new expanded service, it’s just replacing something that’s already there so it’s like somebody took away your car and then gave it right back to you and said, ‘Look you have a new car, only now with this new car you won’t be able to stop everywhere you want to. You’ll have to stop every six stops instead.’”

Fast-forward a couple of years. Walker is in the governor’s mansion. Chris Larson is a State Senator that sometimes shows up for work.

The state budget passed by the Republican legislature killed the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter train and the regional transit authority (RTA) that funded it’s planning and lobbying efforts. The remaining money sitting in the fare box from the rental car tax, plus federal and state grants, has to be divided up.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and members of the Milwaukee County Board want $15 million of the leftover federal KRM money for three rapid bus lines.

“In addition to shorter travel times for transit riders, express routes would allow the County to reprogram funds from portions of underlying local routes to support other parts of the transit system facing severe potential service cuts.

“If approved, the grants would be used to create express bus routes along three existing highly used local route corridors to improve transit travel times.”

In other words, what was once a criticism of rapid buses, that they could be used to replace slower lines along the same route, is now an asset. Milwaukee County would be able to actually save local tax money for the existing bus system by taking out some of the routes and replacing them with the rapid bus system. Funny how that works.

More importantly, the whole exercise shows just how outdated and expensive rail projects, much more expensive than bus systems, not only compete for transportation funding but waste the money. Milwaukee County’s belated enthusiasm for rapid buses was only made possible when Walker and the legislature killed off wasteful rail spending.

Meanwhile, Barrett waits for his train. The last time Milwaukee had a streetcar system analysts said the city lacked the population density to keep it viable. Buses, they said, were the wave of the future. That report was issued in 1949. The Braves hadn’t even moved to Milwaukee yet, and I have no idea what the team logo for the minor league Milwaukee Brewers looked like then.

Now Milwaukee County actually has a chance to build a system that commuters will use to actually move people to jobs in the Milwaukee area, unlike Barrett’s train boondoggle that merely runs along existing bus routes, forever.

Barrett and Abele are close political allies. Perhaps Abele should give Barrett a call tell him it’s time to hop on board the bus.