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Ridership on Milwaukee County buses has dropped steadily for more than a decade, amid funding cuts that have eliminated routes and stops Ridership on Milwaukee County buses has dropped steadily for more than a decade, amid funding cuts that have eliminated routes and stops

Ridership on Milwaukee County buses has dropped steadily for more than a decade, amid funding cuts that have eliminated routes and stops

By Dave Umhoefer April 22, 2013

1000 Friends says demand for public transit at all-time high in Wisconsin

The environmental group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin sees at least 10 reasons to change the way the state Department of Transportation spends money.

The Madison-based group opposed the cut in state funds for public transit in Gov. Scott Walker’s first budget, which simultaneously boosted aid for highways. In the end, state lawmakers moderated Walker’s 10 percent cut  by adding to the funding for transit for disabled riders.

Now, with Walker’s second two-year budget awaiting action, 1000 Friends is pushing state lawmakers to restore the 2011-13 transit cuts.

"We should allocate more funds for transit to respond to the increase in demand and ridership," the group said in an April 11, 2013 press release. "Transit ridership in America is at its highest in 50 years and demand for public transportation is reaching record levels in Wisconsin, yet transit systems in the state are in jeopardy of disappearing due to lack of state support."

The group’s claim that  "demand for public transportation is reaching record levels in Wisconsin" got our attention.

Let’s take this one for a spin.


Record ridership?

When asked for backup, 1000 Friends pointed to a mix of ridership statistics and state and national demographic and lifestyle trends.

Officials with the group reference a "substantial increase" in transit trips over the last decade in Wisconsin -- not including Milwaukee County -- based on the National Transit Database. That database covers fixed-route buses, van and taxi service for the disabled, trolleys, light rail and other forms of public transit in Wisconsin, excluding Amtrak passenger rail.

The trend "shows that demand is going up," 1000 Friends executive director Steve Hiniker said.

Maybe so. But up to "record levels"?

We ran the numbers with help from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database and found a 37 percent jump in transit trips outside Milwaukee County from 2002 to 2012.  In 2011, Madison reported its highest bus ridership since the late 1980s, La Crosse its highest in 30 years and Valley Transit in the Fox Cities its highest since 1995.

And the group correctly cites U.S. figures showing that national transit ridership, including trains, has grown since the 1960s, driven mostly by strong interest in light rail and heavy rail. Bus ridership has remained mostly flat. The trends were reported in 2012 by the American Public Transportation Association using the national database.

But two others sets of numbers provided by the group, and confirmed by PolitiFact Wisconsin, paint a much different picture.

Once you include Milwaukee County -- the largest transit agency in the state by far -- the trend becomes a drop of 8 percent in rides comparing 2002 to 2012.

Three of the last four years show decreases.

The Milwaukee County Transit System’s bus service has steadily lost ridership -- nearly 30 percent by one estimate -- since 2002 as it has cut routes and eliminated stops due to funding shortages. Fares have increased 50 percent in 11 years.

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The Milwaukee County numbers are enough to put the statewide trend into the negative.

The bottom line: Trips statewide totalled more than 71 million in 2012, down from about 77 million in 2002.

That puts a dent in the group’s claim about "record levels" in Wisconsin.

Transit cuts

Hiniker argues that the statewide figures don’t tell the whole story on demand for transit in Wisconsin because funding cuts have led to higher fares and made transit less available, while other states have added service.

Outside of Milwaukee, total transit ridership dipped in 2012 after the transit cuts in Walker’s first budget, according to figures from the national database. The city of Racine, for example, reported a double-digit drop in 2012 bus rides after raising fares 33 percent following the budget cut. A year earlier, ridership had jumped 10 percent.

"Most of my clients are on a fixed income," said Al Stanek, Racine’s transit manager. "Our customers just end up riding less while spending the same amount of money on transportation."

Demand can be up, or remain steady, even as ridership declines, Stanek and Hiniker said.

Researchers cite funding levels -- and their impact on fares and convenience -- as among the many factors that influence ridership demand.

So funding cuts can help explain why ridership is not higher.

But that lack of supply is not evidence that demand is reaching "record levels."

The group also argued that demand is a function of lifestyle and demographic trends at the state and national level, as well as U.S. ridership trends.

Wisconsin’s over-60 population is growing, and that "has implications for ... expanded transit services for drivers who transition from cars to public transportation or paratransit services," the state’s Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy concluded in a January 2013 report.

The same state report found that  "young people are waiting longer to apply for driver licenses." That, along with national surveys showing more young people are turning to transit supports an inference that young Wisconsinites do too, Hiniker said.

Hiniker conceded, though, that "sloppy" work explained why the group’s press release asserted that demand was at an all time high in Wisconsin.

The intended statement, which is on the group’s website, said simply that demand was up nationwide, without mentioning Wisconsin, he said.

Our rating

1000 Friends of Wisconsin, arguing for restoration of transit aid, claimed that "Demand for public transportation is reaching record levels in Wisconsin."

The group can point to hot spots where ridership in 2011 reached heights unseen for many years, and makes a decent argument that transit cuts have suppressed demand.

But its claim goes well beyond that, suggesting a quantifiable statewide trend at "record" levels -- and hard evidence of that is lacking.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

1000 Friends of Wisconsin, press release, April 11, 2011

Interview with Steve Hiniker, executive director, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, April 15, 2013

Interview with  Ashwat Anandanarayanan, Transportation Policy Analyst, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, April 16, 2013

Interview and research help from Angela Gates, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. DOT / Federal Transit Administration, April 15, 2013

Interview with Gary Goyke, legislative liaison, Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association, April 15, 2013

Interview with Al Stanek, Parking and Transit Systems Manager, city of Racine, April 16, 2013

Interview with Jackie Janz, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Milwaukee County Transit System, April 16, 2013

Interview with Mick Rusch, spokesman, Metro Transit, Madison, April 16, 2013

American Public Transportation Association, 2012 Public Transportation Fact Book, September 2012

Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy, final report, Jan. 23, 2013

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1000 Friends says demand for public transit at all-time high in Wisconsin

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