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Public transportation presser

Ashwat Narayanan, director of Transportation Policy at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, speaks at a press conference Tuesday. A recent report highlights the gaps in Wisconsin's public transit services. 

Denise Jess was born legally blind, so driving was “never an option,” she said. She can use the Madison Metro Transit system to get to work, the grocery store or friends’ houses, but “the toll is huge.”

Her doctor’s appointment might be just a 15-minute car ride away, but it could take her an hour-and-a-half to get there on the bus. Then, after a 20-minute appointment, she has to turn around and get back on the bus home.

Increased travel time can mean less energy, time with friends and family (which can mean higher childcare costs) and even less time to cook healthy food, Jess said. She’s not alone. Roughly 670,000 people in Wisconsin have a disability, many of whom rely on public transportation because of that disability or poverty, Jess said.

According to a new report released Tuesday, Wisconsin’s lack of sufficient investment in public transportation puts seniors, people with disabilities and low incomes, and communities of color at a disadvantage.

The report, titled “Arrive Together: Transportation Access and Equity in Wisconsin,” was released by several groups including 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, Sierra Club and Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Six press conferences Tuesday morning around Wisconsin, including Madison, highlighted the results.

While this election season has put a spotlight on transportation issues, much of that debate has focused on the state of Wisconsin’s roads. But not everyone has a car or can drive, the report argues, and the state has prioritized driving infrastructure over public transit, walking and biking infrastructure, putting non-drivers at a disadvantage.

“We need to get our transportation priorities straight,” said Ashwat Narayanan, director of Transportation Policy at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, an environmental and economic advocacy group. “Over the past 10 years, we have spent billions of dollars on new highway expansions that have serious, negative consequences such as increased pollution, carbon emissions and worsening car crashes.”

Narayanan said transit agencies have had to “cut routes, reduce frequency and increase fares” over this time period.

Cities around the state need public transportation systems that run more frequently, with extended hours of operation, and that run closer to major employment hubs, schools, hospitals and the like, the report said.

Jess is also the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and said the council's “number one legislative priority for many, many years has been transportation,” Jess said, “because we know it is the linkage between quality of life and sustainability for people with disabilities around the state.”

A recent survey by the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations found that 59 percent of those surveyed (older adults, people with disabilities and their families) said they had trouble obtaining or keeping a job due to lack of transportation services, Jess said. 

The report profiles transportation systems in nine Wisconsin cities, including the Madison Metropolitan Area.

Relatively speaking, Narayanan said Madison’s transit system “does pretty well,” although there are still areas for improvement.

The Arrive Together report found Madison Metro Transit, with its four transfer points, allows riders to get “almost anywhere in the city,” albeit with sometimes lengthy commutes. It compliments Madison Metro’s responsiveness to riders, pointing to a route that was introduced to Owl Creek Neighborhood after the neighborhood reported kids walking for miles to find things to do.

But the south and northeast sides of the city, where much of Madison’s lower-income population lives, suffer from less frequent transit service and routes that don’t “easily connect to job hubs,” the report says.

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It can be hard for seniors to travel, as “many senior living facilities are on the periphery of the city, or outside of the city limits.” There are no Madison Metro routes to nearby suburbs like Sun Prairie, and a cab ride from downtown Madison to Sun Prairie is about $60, Narayanan said.

Limited Metro operating hours often mean second- and third-shift workers are out of luck, the report says, and may have to rely on other providers like the YWCA’s JobRide for low-income riders.

Madison Metro is limited in expanding its routes because its bus garage is over capacity. In June, Madison Metro failed to get a federal grant to help build a satellite bus garage.

Narayanan said Madison “needs prioritize transit more” and see Madison Metro “as a valuable city entity and not a department that needs to be subsidized.”

The report says there also needs to be more funding from the state to local governments, or funding through a mechanism like a Regional Transit Authority, which would need legislative approval.

Narayanan proposed increasing spending to levels recommended by the “Keep Wisconsin Moving” report from the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission authorized by Gov. Scott Walker. The 2013 report recommended an annual increased investment of $36.3 million. 

“Governor Walker remains committed to developing and advancing transportation solutions that work for all Wisconsinites,” Christian Schneider, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, wrote in an email.

Schneider pointed to investments, including:

  • $220 million in mass transit aids to local governments in the last budget
  • $840,000 in increased aid to the Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities Specialized Transportation County Aids program
  • $32 million available in grants to “fund the replacement of eligible public transit buses under the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust.”
  • $8 million in grants to “establish innovative transportation solutions such as vanpools, ridesharing, shuttles in areas not served by public transit”

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