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Federal funding set to move Wisconsin transit systems forward

dusk on State Street in Madison features buses, bikes and many pedestrians

Debates on big investments continue while residents wait for a ride

“You can’t do short trips. If you just needed to go to the post office and get stamps you couldn’t do that,” Melanie Ramey said.

Ramey is a city of Madison resident who experiences vision loss due to macular degeneration. “It’s the short things you might like to do or need to do that the paratransit system is just not set up to deal with.”

a paratransit bus picking up a rider in a wheelchair
BadgerBus offers transit options to meet people’s various needs. In this photo, a person in a wheelchair is being helped onto a paratransit bus. | Photo by Erik Pfantz

The city’s paratransit system serves “individuals who cannot use Metro’s fixed-route, city bus service due to a disability,” according to the Madison Metro Transit website.

“I live downtown so the post office, the drug store, and all those kinds of things I can get to on my mobility scooter but a lot of people don’t have that option,” Ramey said.

When Ramey does use paratransit, going to a doctor’s appointments, for example, she has to schedule at least 24 hours in advance both her arrival and departure. She cannot predict the duration of her appointments so she chooses a time a few hours later, leaving her to wait if she has a short appointment.

“You really do waste a lot of time and I have heard other people say that is why they don’t use it,” Ramey said. “Very often I have been on the bus and I have been the only person on the bus because people just don’t use it and it’s really unfortunate.”

“We have designed everything we do around the idea that everyone has a car, and we’ve always been wrong.”

Tami Jackson, non-driver advocate

Transportation is often framed as a personal freedom with boundless options for movement, usually assuming use of personal motor vehicles. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), however, acknowledges that 31 percent of the states’ residents are non-drivers. This includes both those under the age of 15 and “non-drivers of eligible driving age,” according to the DOT website.

“Not only is there the mental load of figuring out, constantly, what’s my plan A to get there, what happens if that falls through,” Tami Jackson, a non-driver advocate living in Madison, said. She illustrated a non-driver’s perspective before offering her view as an able driver. “There’s a constant mental load that I do not have as a driver because I can just decide that I am going 10 minutes later and it’s not a problem.”

“We have designed everything we do around the idea that everyone has a car,” Jackson said. “And we’ve always been wrong.”

Innovative solutions exist and a few are being implemented

Denise Jess is the Executive Director for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. She was born with an underdeveloped optic nerve and has been considered legally blind her entire life. Jess uses Madison’s fixed-route bus system, taxis and is a pedestrian as she moves around town.

A bus wrapped in a decal stating "Bus Rapid Transit Coming in 2024"
One of Madison’s new electric busses advertises for the city’s new fixed route system | Photo by Erik Pfantz

“For generations we have thought that one transportation program or facility or infrastructure, whatever, is going to be the magic bullet that cures all transportation issues and that is untrue,” Jess said. “What we really need is a diversity of programs that interact with each other in positive ways.”

Jess describes the issues with scheduling and arriving at doctor’s appointments while using these systems. “I’ve spent about 4 hours in transit for a 20 minute appointment,” she said.

“If I want to lessen the time, I need to increase the cost. So if I want to get to that appointment but maybe do it in a comparable amount of time to a driver, I need to pay a taxi,” she continued.

A road with many lanes of traffic covered in construction barrels
Construction of bus stations for Madison’s bus rapid transit system has University Avenue covered in construction cones | Photo by Erik Pfantz

Both of Wisconsin’s largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, are in the midst of large investments in new mass transit projects. Milwaukee is building its light rail streetcar called “The Hop” while Madison broke ground this spring on building new infrastructure for a Bus Rapid Transit fixed route bus system. Both projects have their advantages and shortcomings.

“The Bus Rapid Transit is going to be marvelous at accomplishing the thing of getting lots of people moved quickly. It’s not ever going to be the solution that gets someone from their neighborhood home to the stop,” Jess said.

“There needs to be other things built [along with] the fixed route system,” she explained further. “Maybe it’s the pedestrian infrastructure: that we’ve got good sidewalks, we’ve got curb cuts, we’ve got accessible pet signals, we’ve got traffic calming so someone can walk. Maybe it’s a robust taxi program or microtransit like a little autonomous vehicle that runs the neighborhood loop and drops people off. It’s all these different pieces that work in tandem with each other to make this work.”

Wisconsin non-drivers share their perspectives

Rhonda Staats, a resident of LaCrosse, has used the city’s Municipal Transit bus system for years to get to work, the gym and art venues as both a performer and an audience member. The bus has provided a reliable transportation option for her.

“It is liberating to be able to go when and where you want using the bus,” Staats said in an email.

a white van with a decal saying Transit Solutions Inc. sits parked on a street
Transit Solutions Inc. is another transit company that aims to serve elderly and disabled riders in Dane County | Photo by Erik Pfantz

Staats has also experienced blindness her entire life. She purposefully chose her home in LaCrosse because it is close to a bus stop.

“It isn’t quite on demand, but the daily schedule is maintained,” Staats said. She also said the bus drivers are very helpful in unforeseen circumstances like if snowbanks are blocking sidewalks in the winter or if the schedule changes. “Since I am no longer working, I don’t use the bus quite as often, so it is more difficult to assimilate route changes in my mind,” she said.

Kathleen Callen is another non-driving transit activist. She has lived in Madison for the last eight years and is a professional in the nonprofit sector.

“Where I used to live it was hard to get around on the weekends – I lived about a 10 minute drive from downtown but for me I’d have to allow at least an hour each way because I’d have to transfer and usually have a long wait at the transfer point,” Callen said via email.

Following a move “closer to the core of service,” Callen now regularly uses Metro Transit to go to work and around the city, particularly the areas that are well-connected to the system.

Callen experiences a hereditary form of optic atrophy which slowly deteriorates her vision and she is now considered to be “low-vision.” She does not feel safe driving but does not qualify for paratransit so she uses the buses and ride-share programs to get around in the city and regional buses to get to Milwaukee or Chicago.

“With better public transportation we not only gain more independence but we also have more opportunities to get out and connect with people and activities”

Kathleen Callen, non-driver advocate

Callen values transit to a major airport because she is a prolific world traveler. Besides traveling to various countries, Callen has also lived in England and shared with me how their bus system was available at all hours of the day and that even rural areas received regular service.

“I was able to take a bus [or] train to parks and areas that allowed me to hike and do so much more independently. I dream of the day that I can feel independent and able to get to communities around the area on my own,” Kathleen shared via email. “I have family that live near Milwaukee and I wish I could visit them but as they age and can’t drive it is getting harder and harder.”

“I also would love to be able to be more spontaneous and have more options for where people can live. These are luxuries that those that rely on public transportation [don’t] have,” Kathleen wrote. “With better public transportation we not only gain more independence but we also have more opportunities to get out and connect with people and activities and thus cut down on the isolation.”

Sydney Badeaux is one of Wisconsin’s most prominent self-advocates for people with developmental disabilities. She lives with her family on a farm in rural southern Wisconsin where she cares for nearly two dozen chickens and tends to their big garden each morning before working remotely for two advocacy organizations.

a yellow Union Cab sedan drives down a street in Madison
The bright yellow Union Cab vehicles are a common sight in Madison | Photo by Erik Pfantz

“Yeah there’s really no transportation around here,” Badeaux said. “I rely on friends and family for the most part.”

When she occasionally does need to travel for work, her employer pays for Union Cab to drive her to Madison. Otherwise, she mostly lives and works at home and plans outings to local stores or restaurants with her friends and family. 

“I do live with my parents but they can’t stop what they’re doing and take me places all the time for work. That’s crazy. That’s a lot to ask of someone. So the cab will come at like 8 AM sometimes and get me where I need to go,” Badeaux said. She coordinates with the cab company two weeks in advance to make trips to Madison because it is difficult for them to find drivers who want to drive out to where she lives.

Badeaux thinks an ideal rural transit option would be individualized. She said Union Cab offers accommodations for wheelchairs and people with sensory needs. Sensory accommodations might involve requests about the radio volume or to not open the windows.

Another transit option Badeaux has access to is a service called Rock County Specialized Transport, which operates only within Rock County. If she would need to go to Madison, this option could take her only as far as the county border and she would need to find another service to finish the trip. Like how most buses operate within city limits, some others only operate within counties or certain regions. 

One northern Wisconsin city has a system that works but also is limited

Merrill is a small city in northern Wisconsin with a long history of public transit. The Merrill-Go-Round, the city’s current bus system, recently celebrated its 101st anniversary.

Rob Norton, a bus operator for the Merrill-Go-Round, said, “We know our clientele by name.”

Merrill’s demand-responsive city bus service is unique in the state. To catch a bus in Merrill, a customer calls the dispatcher and tells them where and when they want to be picked up and their destination. The dispatcher then determines which driver’s route matches with the customer’s request and relays the information to the driver through a tablet mounted on the bus’s dashboard.

Two of the city’s buses meander Merrill’s streets from east to west and vice versa once an hour while a third sits in reserve. Drivers also take time to wipe down and sanitize surfaces once an hour.

A glass-walled bus shelter next to a parking lot
Merrill’s only sheltered bus stop by Wal-Mart on the east side | Photo by Erik Pfantz

“When you look at our clientele, you’re going all the way from Pre-K all the way up to elderly that’s 99, 100 years old. So we look out for everyone’s health when we’re doing that,” Norton said.

Drivers will knock on a customer’s door or step inside Kwik Trip to check for them if they are not waiting outside. They will even make an effort to drop people off on the same side of the street as their destination, saving them from having to cross the street.

 “Being a people person, it is a great job because you are communicating and transporting different ages, different lifestyles and different needs throughout the city,” Norton said.

“When you’re stopping at your stops you can converse with them, see how they’re doing throughout the day and hear all their aches and pains and see how their kids are doing or their cats or their animals that they might have,” Norton explained further. “You get a better comradery with your clientele having this premium curb to curb service.”

Merrill’s premium service can also feature long wait times and inconsistent timing. Regular morning routes will get someone to work on time but spontaneous trips will require some waiting. The hours are also quite limited, operating between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays only. The Merrill-Go-Round is a quality service with serious limitations that only costs two dollars a ride.

“Seeing how many people we transport throughout the day and the need for it is just incredible.”
Rob Norton, Merrill-Go-Round driver

“Seeing how many people we transport throughout the day and the need for it is just incredible,” Norton said. “You look at other communities of nine thousand, ten thousand people and they don’t even have a bus system. Whitewater pretty much has the same population as what Merrill has. We’ve had a bus system for over 100 years. They’re a college town and they don’t have a bus system.”

“We’ve had people [that say] ‘why should I get my car out when it’s icy and three feet of snow on the ground when I can call the bus have it pick me up at my front door and drop me off to work at the time that I need for two dollars,” Norton said.

Recent federal funding poised to make big impacts

President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law on November 15, 2021 which invests $1.2 trillion into United States infrastructure, including its transportation systems. This money will be making its way to cities, counties and municipalities over the next several years and citizens will have many opportunities to steer its impacts.

A street full of cars in Madison
Personal automobiles remain the dominant form of transportation in Madison despite alternatives | Photo by Erik Pfantz

Analysis of the law provided last year by the US Department of Transportation predicts over the next five years Wisconsin will receive about $5.4 billion for highways and bridges and $599 million to improve public transportation options. State and local governments can also apply for competitive grants for things like safe streets, low and no emission busses, bus facilities, rural roads and “projects that improve transportation safety and efficiency.” These and other competitive grants offer about $60 billion to communities that make the best arguments for their investment.

These big investments have faced some political criticism but the Economic Policy Institute found that for each $100 billion in infrastructure investment, about one million jobs are created and for each $100, private sector output is increased by an average of $17 based on 2017 estimates.

President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act on August 16, 2022 which also invests nearly $800 billion into energy efficiency and conservation efforts. While these are not as direct investments into transportation as the Infrastructure Law, this more recent legislation puts money into research and development of cheaper fuel and energy production and efficiency of other energy intensive systems. These things will take years to develop and implement but things like tax credits for electric vehicles and their components are already impacting purchasing decisions and production lines, according to NPR.

A few closing thoughts from our fellow Wisconsin residents

“The largest minority community in this country are people with disabilities. It’s about 25%, people don’t realize that,” Jackson said. “Are we going to rethink how we do things or are we only going to build places that people who are between a certain age and who have the economic ability to own or have access to a car?”

“We need to shift the burden away from the user to building systems that work,” Jess said.

a paratransit bus parked with two people walking away with one carrying shopping bags
BadgerBus offers transit options to meet people’s various needs. In this photo, the driver is carrying bags for a rider | Photo by Erik Pfantz

“Why don’t they use the technology that’s available and that’s used every day by other organizations [she suggested Uber or Amazon], then they could be more responsive,” Ramey asks. “When you finish an appointment you could call up and you might have to wait 15 or 20 minutes or something but that’s a whole lot better than 45 minutes.”

“Transportation is always the number one legislative and advocacy priority for me,” Staats said. “My mantra is: Transportation, first and always. There will never be enough transportation options to go around.”

“It’s neat how a local transit system can actually bring people together,” Norton said.

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