Friday, February 23, 2007

Transit politics in overdrive in Milwaukee

Milwaukee WI - The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offers up a story that is all too common across America these days. It deals with the political fighting over public transit.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is in opposition to a trolley proposal for the city and he's being attacked by other city politicians. The reason? Walker isn't rushing out to spend tax money on an unneeded transit project.

While I'm not fully up on all the dirt in this fight, I know enough of what is happening to see that Walker has a better understanding of how transit needs to be run than the politicians that are in favor of building a project that will siphon off money to run the bus system.

Considering the fact that Milwaukee is having a lot of problems with its bus operation, adding a fiscal black hole to the deal would only make things worse.

The politicians that support the trolley proposal need to take off their rose colored glasses. Milwaukee will not have massive development, cleaner air or less traffic congestion. Walker understands this point. He also understands that a trolley would ultimately hurt the bus system, county-wide.

Walker's detractors point out that he favored a fare hike and route cuts as well as opposed a transit sales tax. Let's look at a few key points.

First, Milwaukee's fare is $1.75 after the fare hike. That is rather mid-range for public transit in terms of fares. In addition, the fare hike only effected passes and strip tickets, not the base fare.

Second, as I have been preaching for decades, you can't run buses with few riders. If people don't ride a route, you can't hang on to it because 1 or 2 people do ride. Public transit is expensive to operate and you need to maintain some manner of ridership in decent numbers. Most systems use 8 riders per trip as a minimum and I'm sure, Milwaukee had some routes that couldn't meet that very generous number.

Finally, I am not 100% sure of the details behind the proposed transit sales tax but I am sure of this. It wouldn't have brought in the amount of cash that proponents claimed it would. These taxes never do and most likely, various advocacy groups for the poor were fighting it as it would spread the pain to everyone rather than to key groups.

The simple fact of the matter is this, Scott Walker understands the concept of public transit enough to know that a trolley line would hurt the bus system and the operation can't afford it, even if the transit sales tax was in place.

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