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By Sarah Hauer December 17, 2015

State Sen. Chris Larson off the mark on claim about Milwaukee County bus fares


State Sen. Chris Larson supported Chris Abele’s bid for the Milwaukee County executive post in 2011. Now, Larson is challenging the incumbent and trying to convince voters Abele’s time in office hasn’t been successful.

Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat and former member of the County Board, appeared Nov. 22, 2015 on WISN-TV’s UpFront with Mike Gousha program and said he’s disappointed in Abele’s leadership.

"He’s out of touch," Larson said.  

Gousha listed some of Abele’s successes and asked, "Does he get any credit for (the successes)?"

Larson countered by attacking one of Abele’s main talking points -- transit.

Larson said the Milwaukee County bus system has "among the highest fares in the nation."

We recently checked Abele’s claim that since he took office "we have never raised" bus fares and "this year there’ll be a million more route-miles than there were five years ago."

We rated the claim Mostly True. Budget documents show fares have been $2.25 since Abele took office in 2011 and route-miles are up by about 1 million. But Abele credited himself for the increased route miles, when many of them were the result of a settlement related to a lawsuit.

So, fares have stayed at $2.25.

But is Larson right that they are "among the highest fares in the nation"?

National comparison

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The Milwaukee County Transit System charges a flat fare of $2.25 in cash for a one-way adult bus ticket. Patrons who get a Smart Card pay $1.75 per ride. Transfers are free.

When asked for backup, Larson’s team sent a list with the one-way adult bus fare for 11 cities.

In that comparison, only Pittsburgh was higher than Milwaukee County, charging $2.50 for a base fare that increases to $3.75 for longer trips. Two other cities -- Denver and Cleveland -- charge $2.25 per ride, the same as Milwaukee County. In 2016, fares in Denver will increase to $2.60.

But is Larson cherry picking the data?

When we reached out to the Milwaukee County Transit System for its take, officials compiled a list of 20 systems comparable in size to MCTS. That list showed seven transit systems with higher base fares than Milwaukee County.

At the top was Pittsburgh, with fares in Seattle and the Twin Cities rounding out the top three, at fares of up to $3.25 and $3, respectively.

Another four systems had rates above $2.25 for longer routes (matching Milwaukee County) or charged $1 for a transfer (something that is free in Milwaukee County).

There is no great single resource for information of bus fares across the country and the fares are often change.

One survey conducted by the American Public Transit Association in 2014 compares about 250 transit systems across the country, though some of its data is already outdated. At the time, nine cities on that list charged more than Milwaukee’s $2.25 cash fare. The highest fare -- in Nashville -- was $4 per ride.

Our rating

Larson said the Milwaukee County bus system has "among the highest fares in the nation."

But the system’s’ $2.25 cash fare wasn’t at the top of a national comparison, with fares reaching as high as $4 per trip. And regular patrons who use a Smart Card are charged just $1.75 a ride, making the Milwaukee County bus system about on par with average costs.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

UpFront with Mike Gousha, interview with Chris Larson, Nov. 22.

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Chris Abele says since he took office, county hasn’t raised bus fares, yet added route miles, Nov. 23, 2015.

American Public Transit Association, Adult single-trip base fares, 2014.

American Public Transit Association, Fact book, 2014.

Email exchange, Brendan Conway, chief marketing and communications officer, Milwaukee County Transit System.

Email exchange, Joe Peterangelo, Senior researcher, Public Policy Forum.

Email exchange, Lacy K. Fox, Communications Director, Office of Senator Chris Larson.

Email exchange with Virginia Miller, director of media relations, American Public Transportation Association.


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State Sen. Chris Larson off the mark on claim about Milwaukee County bus fares

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