PRESS EDITORIAL: Public transit: not popular, but necessary

Ozaukee County residents are about to lose a valuable public service that has been available for the past 24 years—and only a few of us will care. In fact, that’s the reason the Ozaukee County Express commuter bus service will be sharply cut back or shut down altogether at the end of the year. In spite of all the good reasons the service exists, only a tiny handful of people use it.

Commuter buses run between three stops in Ozaukee County and 15 stops in downtown Milwaukee on weekdays, with seven trips in the morning and seven in the afternoon and evening. Considering the state of current private-vehicle commuting conditions, it would be expected that the buses would be packed.

At peak hours, the times when most commuters have to be on the road, the preferred route, I-43, has been clogged with more traffic than it was designed to handle even before the yearslong reconstruction project now underway was started. Now it is a work-zone gantlet run by cars massing in narrow, temporary lanes between concrete barriers and forced to share the space, often bumper to bumper, with unrelentingly heavy semi truck traffic. Meanwhile, the prices of gas, cars and parking are steeply elevated, and so, anecdotal evidence suggests, is driver frustration that sometimes morphs into road rage.

And yet the Express buses that offer, as the Ozaukee Transit Services website points out, the alternative of “a stress-free ride with time to read and relax,” carry an average of fewer than four passengers per trip.

The Ozaukee County Board cannot be expected to let that go on. It will have to either put an end to the service or reconfigure it in some less costly form. More than the abysmal ridership numbers is forcing that decision. The contract with the Milwaukee County Transit Service (MCTS), which operates the Ozaukee County Express buses, expires on Dec. 31.

The service is paid for by federal and state transportation grants, as well as county funds. The county share, now and through 2023, is covered by pandemic relief money. The cost of operating the service for the first six months of this year was $386,143. Income from ticket sales, at the rate of $3.50 (discounted to $3 for some passengers) per one-way ride totaled a mere $8,000 for the same period.

All public transit is subsidized by tax money. No form of public transportation is fully funded by users, including highways, which are supported far more by general tax funds than by fuel taxes and registration fees. Still, the miniscule ridership numbers of the Ozaukee County Express clearly make that service unsustainable.

Assuming the commuter bus transit that has served the county since 1998 will end or be severely diminished as early as this winter, the challenge to the county is to devise at least a limited alternative.

Americans are famously averse to public transportation, preferring the independence of their own vehicles. Bus, train or subway mass transit has significantly high ridership only in metropolises where street congestion makes private-car driving nigh on to impossible.

Some smaller urban areas, however, have had success with on-demand transit using vehicles smaller than full-size buses and operating with flexible schedules.

Ozaukee Transit Service offers a variation of this with its shared-ride taxi system. The service already takes riders to MCTS bus stops on Brown Deer Road. The possibility of expanding that service to downtown Milwaukee should be explored.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Rideshare program offers help to some people who are not able or willing to drive themselves to work. The free service assists commuters in making connections for car pooling with people who live nearby and have jobs in the same places. It works for some commuters, but has obvious limitations.

Like its imperative to build and maintain  streets and highways, government has a responsibility to provide other transportation opportunities for its citizens. Owning a motor vehicle should not be a requisite for finding and holding a job any more than it should be for traveling to buy food and other essentials of life.


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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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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