County may park struggling commuter bus

Averaging just 3.3 riders per trip, Ozaukee-to-Milwaukee service faces uncertain future, is subject of Aug. 10 hearing

A LONE RIDER got off the Ozaukee County Express bus at its Grafton stop in November shortly after the service, which was suspended because of the pandemic, was relaunched. Press file photo
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Ozaukee County officials are considering whether to discontinue the long-running but struggling Ozaukee County Express bus service, which is averaging fewer than four riders per trip, and will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 10, to seek input on the fate of the service.

The hearing, which will be hosted by the Public Works Committee, will be at 6:30 p.m. in the Ozaukee County Administration Center auditorium at 121 W. Main St., Port Washington.

The committee will also accept written comments that will be read during the hearing. They can be sent to Public Hearing Comments, Ozaukee Transit Services, P.O. Box 994, 741 W. Oakland Ave., Port Washington, WI 53074, and must be received by 8 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10.

The committee will not take action on Aug. 10 but is expected to consider the future of the bus service when it meets later this month. A recommendation to discontinue the service must be approved by the County Board.

Launched in 1998, the commuter bus provides service between three stops in Ozaukee County and downtown Milwaukee with seven southbound runs in the morning and seven northbound runs in the afternoon and evening.

Ridership peaked in 2008, but, following a nationwide decrease in commuter bus service use, has steadily declined since then.

The service experienced its worst year in 2019, and from May 2020 to August 2021 it was suspended because of the pandemic.

A streamlined version of the service with fewer runs was relaunched in the middle of last year in conjunction with an aggressive marketing campaign in the hope of serving county residents who were returning to their offices after working at home during the health crisis.

That hope went unrealized. The service started this year with an average ridership of 1.3 people per run.

The I-43 construction project and high gas prices have helped increase ridership, Ozaukee County Transit Supt. Joy Neilson-Loomis said, but only slightly. In June, the average ridership was 3.3 people per trip, resulting in a year-to-date average of 2.7 people per run.

While it was hoped that a return to normal routines would send people back to their offices, that hasn’t happened, at least not to the extend that it has increased demand for commuter bus service.

“A lot of people have continued with hybrid work schedules where they work in the office on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and from home on Thursday and Friday,” Neilson-Loomis said. “Washington County is seeing the same thing with its commuter bus service, and it didn’t suspend service during the pandemic.”

The bus service is paid for with a combination of federal, state and typically local funds, although the local share is currently being covered by pandemic relief money. Those funds will run out at the end of next year.

The service falls far short of paying for itself. For instance, from January through June, the bus cost $386,143 to operate. That cost was offset by only $8,000 in farebox revenue.

A decision on the fate of the service is being forced now not only because of flagging ridership but because the county’s contract with Milwaukee County Transit Service, which operates the Ozaukee County Express, expires at the end of the year without an option to renew it.

If the county decides to continue the service, it would have to seek proposals from operators.

“I don’t even know if we’d receive any proposals,” Neilson-Loomis said.

There are also implications for the county’s shared-ride taxi service. If the bus service is eliminated, the county would no longer be eligible to receive a federal grant that provides $127,000 a year for taxi replacement. The loss of that money could mean that vehicles remain in service beyond their useful lives or the tax levy is increased to help pay for new taxis.

“But there are other sources of money for vehicle replacement, and we would, of course, pursue those,” Neilson-Loomis said.

The shared-ride taxi does take Ozaukee County riders to Milwaukee County Transit System bus stops on Brown Deer Road, but it’s not a great replacement for the commuter bus service because multiple transfers are typically need to travel from Brown Deer Road to Milwaukee, Neilson-Loomis said.

Perhaps the best alternative to a county commuter bus service, she said, is Wisconsin RIDESHARE, a state program that connects commuters so they can carpool and share transportation costs.

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Ozaukee Press

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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