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Metro Transit buses

Madison Metro Transit System buses make their way up State Street. 

Madison Metro Transit has plans to address a “once in a generation” need for investments in public transportation infrastructure, but will struggle without a strong federal partnership, General Manager Chuck Kamp said Tuesday.

For the third year in a row, Metro applied for a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. This year’s application emphasized relationships with non-traditional partners and transportation connections to rural areas.

Though Metro has been unsuccessful in the past, Kamp said its partnerships with the cities of Madison and Sun Prairie and Madison Gas & Electric make Metro's application stronger. 

“It’s a very, very competitive grant and the best chance ever of getting a positive answer,” Kamp said.

As part of the $19.6 million grant request, Metro plans to address capacity issues by building a new storage facility, purchasing five electric 60-foot articulated buses to serve the most crowded routes and expanding service to Sun Prairie and the large regional employers such as Epic Systems. The investment would also help Metro work toward a bus rapid transit system.

“We are going to improve our regional access not just with the urban area but outside to the rural area,” Kamp said.

Expanding and increasing service will require additional bus storage accommodations, Kamp said.

Metro has seen increases in ridership for several years, resulting in overcrowded buses and an inability to expand service during commuting hours. In 2014, Metro recorded an all-time ridership record of more than 15 million rides.

Metro’s current bus storage facility on East Washington Avenue has maxed out storage space. It was originally built to house 160 buses, and there are now 215 forty-foot buses and 17 paratransit vehicles stored at the garage.

Anticipating the future need for garage storage, the city purchased property on Nakoosa Trail to be used as a satellite garage for fleet services, fire maintenance, and radio shop operations in addition to Metro Transit storage.

Metro proposes to use the TIGER funding, if its application is accepted, to build a $35 million bus satellite facility at the Nakoosa Trail site. The federal funds would be balanced with financial assistance from local partners.

The city of Madison has committed $16.1 million, and the city of Sun Prairie is providing $50,000. Metro Transit currently does not serve Sun Prairie, but the city is moving toward a public transportation plan that envisions a connection to Metro’s current service area.

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Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser said he sees Metro as the focus for transportation in Dane County and is willing to financially commit the city to working on a connection. 

"We’re looking at this and saying that if we expect Madison Metro and the city of Madison to ever work with us, we need to show them we’re committed to this," Esser said. "There needs to be some kind of coordinated transportation arrangement and Madison Metro and whatever it might morph to in the future has always got to be the leader to do that."

Madison Gas & Electric is putting up $3.9 million and will assist Metro transition in using electric vehicles.

“For us, it’s continuing a great partnership and working toward those joint cleaner energy goals,” MGE spokesman Steve Schultz said.

The new facility would be designed to house 56 buses, including 36 60-foot articulated buses and 20 40-foot standard buses or 70 standard buses. The garage would also be partially powered by solar energy and have the infrastructure necessary to service both diesel and electric vehicles.

Metro hopes to find out if it received the federal funding in the spring of 2018, Kamp said. If Metro loses out on the funds, it is unclear how a future satellite facility would be funded.

“We will keep looking for ways to fund this important infrastructure, but we will struggle without a strong federal partnership,” Kamp said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.