Public Policy Forum Blog

Pressing Pause on Transit Improvements in the East-West Corridor

On Friday morning, Milwaukee County’s Transportation, Public Works, and Transit Committee will discuss a recommendation from the County's Director of Transportation to hold off temporarily on improvements designed to speed up bus services in the east-west corridor. The proposed “transit signal priority” (TSP) system – which was inspired by our recent research on potential bus system enhancements – would allow buses to shorten red lights and extend green lights at busy intersections. In July, the County Board allocated $1.5 million from County reserves to pay for the TSP system.

The rationale for temporarily delaying the TSP project is that Milwaukee County also is working with other local governments to explore the possibility of introducing a new bus rapid transit (BRT) service connecting downtown Milwaukee with the Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. TSP technology is a core component of BRT services and almost certainly would be included as part of that project. In the 2016 recommended budget for Milwaukee County, the County Executive included $300,000 for BRT planning.

It appears likely that in the near future, County leaders will pursue federal funding to help develop the proposed BRT service. If they do, the $1.5 million already designated for the TSP project could be included as part of the local match required for federal grant funding, thus requiring fewer additional local resources. According to County and transit system officials, “if the project is initiated before the BRT project is defined to the [Federal Transit Administration], it is probable that the TSP project funds could not be included as a match for the BRT project. This would ultimately mean that the County would have lost a possible advantage of using funds on the TSP project that could have been credited to a much larger project seeking the same objective.”

While a TSP system alone could modestly improve bus travel times through the busy east-west corridor, we see no reason not to pause for a reasonable period of time to see what happens with the County’s BRT planning effort in the coming months. As that effort proceeds, critical conversations will be had between the County, the City of Milwaukee, and the City of Wauwatosa, who will all need to collaborate closely for any transit improvements to take place in the corridor.

Those conversations could reveal, for example, whether Milwaukee County Transit System buses could utilize technology already installed in many traffic signals that allow City of Milwaukee fire department vehicles to trigger green lights. If so, the TSP system may be significantly less expensive to develop than anticipated. Similarly, planning the precise alignment of the proposed BRT service will include analyzing where bus stations should be located to make the service as efficient as possible. The County may be able to do this initial work – which would be needed for the TSP project regardless – while saving the $1.5 million until the time is right.

Joe Peterangelo