George Walker started Milwaukee’s first public transit system with horse drawn carriages in 1859. A railroad tycoon named Henry Villard saw the promise of public transit and bought Milwaukee’s public transportation system from Walker in 1890. The resulting Milwaukee and Suburban Transit Company, took over ownership of the consolidated transit system and managed transit in Milwaukee for over 80 years. Towards the tail end of their operation Milwaukee’s suburbs had sprawled outward, making the cost of operation more costly.
Milwaukee Transport Services (MTS) was formed along with the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) in 1975. MTS was formed as a non-profit organization to manage the transit system that Milwaukeeans were intent on preserving because they considered it a valuable part of the community’s infrastructure. MTS has been managing MCTS ever since. In 1987, MCTS, under MTS’s management, won the American Public Transit Association’s award for best transit system in the country. They won the award once again in 1999.
MTS increased service in 1998, when they were awarded a Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant. Problems started in 2000, though, when fares were raised because of a lack of funding; major funding losses came in 2001 when CMAQ funding was lost. For much of MTS’s history, they have operated high quality service. It’s only over the past 13 years that incessant budget cuts have begun to take their toll.
Planning for the routes that helped to make MCTS one of the best systems in the country could not have been done without MTS’s leadership. As a non-profit, MTS’s incentives have always been the long term success of MCTS, rather than making a quick buck for the shareholders, as might have been likely had MTS been a private entity.
The success of this common sense approach to the management of our public bus system is why the bidding process has been a no-contest one since 1975.
However, County Executive Chris Abele’s recent concerns about the system have led to re-opening the bidding process. The companies who are potential contenders for the contract include Veolia, First Transit and MV Transportation.
Veolia, which you may know as your waste disposal company, also is much less familiar as a contractor for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). Veolia is a French owned company that operates in 77 different countries across the globe. They specialize in water, environmental services, energy and, starting in 2011, have also entered the transportation industry. The French government owns a small share in the company.
First Transit is a subsidiary of First Group, a British owned company. Many people may be familiar with First Transit’s management of MCTS’s paratransit service. First Transit’s President, Bradley Thomas, signed in the wrong box on a bid form, which cost Milwaukee County taxpayers $8 million over two years. Lloyd Grant, then-manager of MTS, neglected to correct this mistake on the bid form. He resigned soon afterward, and received much public scrutiny. But it was actually First Transit’s President who made the “botched signature.”
In 2011, the City of Green Bay, after five years, dropped First Transit as the manager of the entire Green Bay Metro system. They opted to bring the transit system back under public management, similar to the operating system in place in Milwaukee County.
MV Transportation is based in California. They are the largest privately owned transportation company in the country. According to nbcbayarea.com, between 2008 and 2010, MV Transportation was fined 295 times by Fairfield, California’s governmental officials for poor performance, including bus accidents, missed bus runs and late buses.
Following these incidents, MV Transportation donated $10,000 to a city council candidate in Fairfield. This demonstrates that by inviting private corporations to take over our public transit systems, accountability to citizens could be lost and democracy circumvented.