Evers taps COVID relief funds to offset state budget’s transit cuts to Madison, Milwaukee

Governor calls adequate funding for bus systems necessary ‘if we want to bounce back from this pandemic’

By: - August 31, 2021 6:00 am
Milwaukee County Bus

A Milwaukee County Transit System bus (David Wilson | Flickr CC BY 2.0)

To partially offset millions of dollars cut from his proposed budget for transit funding for Madison and Milwaukee, Gov. Tony Evers is dividing $25 million from the state’s pandemic relief fund between bus systems serving the two cities.

Evers announced the bus system financial boost Monday, holding press conferences in each city. The funds come from the state’s share of money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which Congress and President Joe Biden enacted in March.

The money will partially replace a $41.3 million cut in transit funding for Wisconsin’s two largest cities by the Republican majority on the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

The panel made the cuts, amounting to a 50% reduction in state transit aid to Milwaukee and Madison, while reshaping Evers’ 2021-2023 budget proposal in June. No other city in the state received a transit aid reduction.

“I just don’t understand the purpose in this, or why you would pick Madison and Milwaukee out,” state Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said at the June 8 meeting when the committee took the vote, “especially when you know that there are so many low-income individuals, especially in Milwaukee, that rely on public transportation each and every single day.”

Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), the finance committee co-chair, dismissed criticisms of the cut at that meeting. He asserted that it allowed the budget to spend more on local road repairs elsewhere in the state without borrowing money. Born also implicitly suggested that the two cities would be able to draw instead on some of the $445.5 million in direct federal pandemic aid that was going directly to the state’s transit systems.

But local officials said that federal transit aid was to shore up pandemic losses in the systems, while the regular state aid that was cut is essential to their normal operating budgets.

At a Madison press conference Monday afternoon, Evers said that the $25 million from ARPA to the two systems “doesn’t get us all the way back” from the funds cut from the budget. “But surely it will make a difference.”

Also at the afternoon announcement was Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. She called mass transit “particularly important to our most vulnerable residents, who are sometimes our most essential workers, and who may not have other ways of getting to work, getting groceries or accessing other important services.”

Evers also held a press conference in Milwaukee earlier Monday with Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. Milwaukee will get $19.7 million and Madison $5.2 million.

“Transportation is an important resource in any community, but especially in Milwaukee County, where we believe every resident should have connections to job centers, grocery stores, medical offices, and recreation,” Crowley said in a prepared statement issued by the governor’s office. “This is an investment in equity for our county.”

Federal regulations require states to spend ARPA funds on pandemic-related expenses rather than to offset ordinary state or local government operating costs. Evers said that the transit money announced Monday would fulfill that requirement because the riders who most depend on mass transit will be key to recovering from the economy’s pandemic downturn.

“The ridership is what makes this COVID-related,” he said. “If we want to bounce back from this pandemic, we have to make sure that folks that are presently patrons of mass transit can get to work and school and help us recover.”

Asked if using the ARPA funds would effectively reward the lawmakers who voted for the transit budget cuts, Evers tacitly acknowledged that interpretation.

“Believe me, there’s no reward for people that made those incorrect decisions, but we had to look beyond rewarding people,” he said. Transit systems are too important to ignore the cuts that Madison and Milwaukee faced, he added.

“And if there’s some byproduct of giving people a political reward for doing the cutting, I was willing to take that chance,” Evers said. 

The lawmakers “clearly deserve no reward,” he continued, “but at the end of the day, people know that they disproportionately impacted people that disproportionately need transit in the Madison and Milwaukee market — and there’s nothing but shame in that decision.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.