Wheels on the Bus

Gauging the outlook for public transit in Wisconsin

April 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of daily life in Wisconsin, and public transportation is no exception. Over the last year, ridership on the state’s public transit systems has declined dramatically as pandemic-related circumstances and restrictions eliminated thousands of trips. While economic conditions have now improved, continued high rates of unemployment, work-from-home practices, and special event cancellations have continued to diminish transit ridership.

At the same time, transit systems themselves initially were forced to limit the number of passengers on their vehicles and have implemented new cleaning protocols and safety measures to prevent the spread of the illness. Taken together, these actions have increased costs while decreasing farebox revenue considerably.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act brought temporary relief to all transit systems in Wisconsin and subsequent federal legislation (particularly the recently adopted American Rescue Plan Act) will offer substantial additional assistance to many. However, whether federal relief funds will be sufficient to allow all systems to sustain their operations as the economy recovers over the next few years is yet unknown and may depend on the extent to which ridership rebounds. Meanwhile, once federal relief is exhausted, even larger questions loom about future ridership trends and whether Wisconsin transit systems will need to replenish their budgets with much larger infusions of local dollars than was the case prior to the pandemic

In this report, the Wisconsin Policy Forum attempts to shed light on those questions by analyzing the current finances and financial outlook of six Wisconsin transit systems. The six systems – which include large, small, and medium-sized systems from different parts of the state – serve as a proxy to consider the overall status of public transit in Wisconsin. We also consider four additional systems on a less detailed basis to provide further insight into how the pandemic and recent ridership trends may be impacting a broader set of systems with diverse operating frameworks.

It is important to note that our focus is on bus service that serves the general population via regularly scheduled routes (also known as “fixed-route” service). However, where relevant, we also provide information on paratransit services for the elderly and disabled as well as shared-ride taxi services that are available to citizens in some communities on a more individualized basis.

As state lawmakers continue their deliberations on the 2021-23 state budget and local officials struggle to manage their finances amidst precarious economic conditions, it will be important for both sets of policymakers to consider how the pandemic has impacted mass transit and what it might take to maintain desired levels of service in the future with a sustainable level of public investment. We hope this report will contribute to a greater understanding of the financial health of transit systems throughout Wisconsin and the unique fiscal challenges they are encountering. Continue reading…