Counties put transit system merger in gear

Ozaukee, Washington officials take first steps toward combining bus, taxi operations to improve service

THE OZAUKEE COUNTY TRANSIT Center on South Spring Street in Port Washington was built in 2012 for $2.4 million, 80% of which were federal funds. It’s unclear what effect a proposed merger would have on the building’s status, officials say. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

After the idea was first broached two years ago, Ozaukee and Washington county officials are taking the first step toward what could be a joint Ozaukee-Washington transit program.

On March 13, the Washington County Public Works Committee voted to direct their staff to negotiate an agreement to share the superintendent position with Ozaukee County and explore the formation of an advisory joint transit commission.

Last week, the Ozaukee County Public Works Committee voted to recruit a joint transit superintendent.

Ozaukee County Transit Superintendent Jason Wittek said creating a joint transit superintendent position would be the first step toward creating a joint transit program.

“It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to create a joint position” if the aim isn’t to create a merged transit system, Wittek said. “Creating a joint superintendent position is the key step in creating a joint system.”

“It would be somewhat ground breaking to have a regional transit service like this,” Ozaukee County Administrator Jason Dzwinel told supervisors on the Ozaukee County Public Works Committee recently.

Both counties’ boards would have to sign off on merging the programs. A joint superintendent would oversee execution of the merger.

Both counties operate a commuter express bus system as well as a shared-ride taxi. The new transit superintendent would oversee both.

While commuter service on the Ozaukee County Express has dropped in recent years, shared-ride taxi service has increased, Wittek said. That’s expected to continue as the county’s population continues to age.

Merging the two systems is an idea that has been discussed for almost two years.

Research into merging the two systems began in 2017. But in November of that year, neither county’s public works committee would approve continuing with the research.

At that time, a study by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, or SEWRPC, said benefits of a merged transit system would include reducing administrative costs and breaking down border issues between the two counties.

A year later, in December 2018, the idea of a merger was included in the Ozaukee County transit plan.

This past January, the Washington County transit superintendent position became vacant and Washington County officials approached Ozaukee officials about reviving the effort.

If merged, taxis would be able to travel from Port Washington to West Bend or Mequon to Germantown without stopping at the county line.

Currently, someone wanting to go from Port to West Bend, for instance, has to be dropped off at the Casey’s General Store gas station in Newburg and wait for a Washington County shared ride taxi to come and pick them up. With a merged system, the taxi could continue on to West Bend.

Federal and state funding pick up the vast majority of the transit systems’ funding so any increased expenses, plus expected increased revenue from fares and ridership, would mean any potential cost increases, or savings, would be marginal, Wittek and Dzwinel said.

Dzwinel instead urged supervisors to look at the potential merger as a “service enhancement” and not from a fiscal point of view.

Making a transit merger easier is that the two counties merged their public health departments in 2016.

“At least we have a model” on how to do it, Dzwinel said. “This will be very similar to how public health was done.”

Wittek told the county Public Works Committee he thinks the merger could be completed by the end of the year or early 2020.

It helps that the same vendor operates both systems for the counties, Wittek said.

According to a memo from Wittek, elements of the as-yet unapproved plan include:

  • The two counties would share costs and fares of taxi trips crossing the county line on a 50-50 basis, “rather than attempt to charge each county for the portion of the trip taking place within each county.” Officials estimate the cost of those trips being between $106,300 and $169,600 annually, with a shared tax levy impact of $22,900 to $29,800.

• A shared transit commission would consist of at least seven members — three from the Washington County Board, two from the Ozaukee County Board and one citizen member from each county — appointed by the county boards or county board chairmen.

• The new shared transit superintendent would be paid a salary of $59,446 to $80,475 annually. The new transit service would also likely require a full-time assistant or clerk. Washington County would pay 60% and Ozaukee County 40% of the salary, based on representation on the commission.

• The fare rate would change to a mileage rate rather than the zoned rate currently used in Ozaukee County. 

• Hours of operation would increase.

• Ownership of each county’s vehicles, about 50 in all, would be transferred to the commission.

The SEWRPC report said other potential savings include:

• $50,000 from consolidating contractor services.

• $3,000 per year in lower gas costs by converting some Washington County vans to hybrid sedans, as Ozaukee County has done.

• Increased revenue from higher fares in Ozaukee County.

The Ozaukee County Transit Center on South Spring Street was built in 2012 for $2.4 million, 80% of which came from the Federal Transportation Administration.

It’s unclear whether the center would have to be transferred to the new transit commission or could be leased to the commission by the county, the memo says.

Wittek will update the County Board next week on the potential merger.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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