The State of Transportation in Milwaukee

Last week, I joined hundreds of other Milwaukeeans in making my voice heard at the Joint Finance Committee hearing on the state budget at State Fair Park in West Allis.

As someone who proposes a budget for Milwaukee County each year, I understand that government is often faced with difficult choices about where and how to invest in critical priorities like mental health, workforce development, and transportation. Elected officials need to hear the voices of the people who are impacted by the decisions we make — that’s one of the most important parts of the budget process.

In my almost 6 years in office, we’ve focused on lowering debt, streamlining government programs, and improving the fiscal outlook of this county. In 2010, before I took office, we were in dire straits. In fact, the Public Policy Forum in 2010 issued a report on Milwaukee County titled “Should it Stay? Or Should It Go?”

I’m pleased to say that we’ve answered that question with a hopeful and resounding “its staying,” but to sustain that progress, we need the state to commit to its historic partnership with county government.

Milwaukee is the economic engine of our state. We need a well-funded transportation system — to include a robust transit system — to connect workers with employers, help businesses safely and reliably move their goods and services cargo, and facilitate tourism in all corners of the state. This requires a sustainable funding level and a commitment to planned, needed road projects. For the good of the economy and the safety of the people of Milwaukee County and all of Wisconsin, we must complete the north leg of the Zoo Interchange and begin the East-West Freeway.

In addition to addressing the needs of state highways, we must also look at local transportation funding. State funding for Milwaukee County highways dropped by 25 percent since 2007. In the 2015 budget, state funding for transit — the largest source of revenue for the Milwaukee County Transit System — was $4 million less than in 2011, a decline of more than 6 percent.

I am asking the state to increase mass transit operating aids for all transit providers to continue the economic development work they do to move people to jobs.

As the state looks for a sustainable revenue model, I’m also requesting that legislators review the possibility of changing the vehicle registration fee, both on the state and local level, from a flat fee to a weight and/or value of the car basis. Last year, I proposed a vehicle registration fee in the County budget as part of my SAVE Transit initiative.

Everyone needs transit whether they ride the bus or not; it is an essential component of a healthy, thriving economy. In addition to funding transit, the vehicle registration revenue supports the maintenance of transportation-related infrastructure, such as repairing our County roadways, bridges, and parkways.

I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t love the idea of a wheel tax, but what I like a lot less is cutting transit or paratransit service, increasing fees, and delaying needed infrastructure investments.

I understand that state legislators are also sensitive to raising taxes and fees. But without additional funding like the vehicle registration fee, which is the only new revenue stream legally available to the County, we are going to have to make difficult decisions budget that will undo the progress we’ve made over the past six years.

Allowing for flexibility in assessing the vehicle registration fee helps us keep fees in line with families’ ability to pay and ensures that the larger, heavier vehicles that tend to do more damage to our shared roadways pay a more equitable share.

On the capital side of transit, I testified in support of the Volkswagen Settlement as proposed by Governor Walker.

The bottom line is that Milwaukee County will see an overall influx of almost $9 million due to this budget provision and will be able to accelerate our replacement schedule. Currently Milwaukee County borrows $13 million a year to replace buses. Under this program, Milwaukee County will receive $6.5 million as a grant and $19.5 million as a no-interest loan through the funds. The annual shared revenue reduction over the next ten years is simply a repayment of that zero percent interest loan that automatically sunsets when the loan is repaid. Because this reduction automatically sunsets, the County’s base level of shared revenue will not be impacted in the long run.

This program will allow us to cash-finance the next two years of purchases, buy these buses without any local levy match, and save millions in debt service payments. Overall, between the $6.5 million grant and the savings on interest, the County will come out nearly $9 million ahead.

The state will also gain almost $2 million annually over the next five budgets (ten years) to invest in programs and services as it needs. This is a win-win.

Even though we face significant challenges, particularly in funding transportation, I’m encouraged by the conversation around the state budget. I look forward to partnering with state and local elected officials, business leaders, and community leaders as we work towards a final state budget.