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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

$25 million in federal funds will help bus system delay crisis

From an article by Larry Sandler in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
A $25 million cash infusion from the federal stimulus package will delay - but not avert - a financial crisis at the Milwaukee County Transit System, county officials and outside experts agree.

Wisconsin's biggest bus system is in line to receive nearly one-third of the $81.6 million that the stimulus legislation will send to the state for transit. And County Executive Scott Walker, who has opposed other stimulus funding, says he will accept the bus money.

Milwaukee County's share of the dollars will go toward buying new buses and other equipment for the transit system. Walker said that will meet his criteria for accepting stimulus funds, because the county won't have to match part of the federal money with local tax dollars and won't be required to fund ongoing operations that weren't already planned.

Last year, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the Public Policy Forum warned that the transit system would be forced to slash service by 35% as early as 2010 unless it won new state or local funding.

The funding crisis stems largely from the way county officials used federal aid to avoid pumping more property tax dollars into the bus system. For years, Congress gave the county money to buy new buses, but the county legally spent the cash on major maintenance to keep old buses running longer. Those federal dollars are running out just as the transit system needs to start replacing about one-third of its aging fleet.

With the stimulus money, the county can buy some but not all of the 155 buses it needs, said planning commission Executive Director Ken Yunker.

That postpones the transit system's day of reckoning, but doesn't eliminate the need for a long-term solution, Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken said.

"Realistically, we're probably talking about buying at least a year," Walker said.

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