The tragedy of Milwaukee’s bus service

By Felix Salmon
April 6, 2011
William Alden's huge article about the vicious financial circle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where local-government cutbacks are hitting the bus service, with the knock-on effect that a lot of jobs are literally out of reach for people without cars.

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You’re probably not going to read all 3,700 words of William Alden’s huge article about the vicious financial circle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where local-government cutbacks are hitting the bus service, with the knock-on effect that a lot of jobs are literally out of reach for people without cars. But it’s a great article, and a fine example of the kind of in-depth original reporting being done by HuffPo.

Alden’s story centers on Petty Schulz, a 53-year-old woman out of work for almost two years who doesn’t own a car. That was fine during the halcyon days of, say, 1999, when the American Public Transportation Association bestowed its Outstanding Achievement Award on Milwaukee County transit. But already the seeds of disaster were being sown: in 2000, when the county Board of Supervisors increased the pension multiplier which determines the percentage of final salary that an employee gets upon retirement, it made a contribution of just $600,000 to the pension fund — down from over $20 million five years earlier.

Today, the cutbacks in bus service have been so severe that even a job at the Milwaukee County Transit System required that Schulz have a car. And the cutbacks don’t just prevent the unemployed from getting new jobs, either: they also force the employed to give up good jobs and become unemployed when they can no longer make it to work.

Of course, the fewer people with work in Milwaukee, the less the city earns in taxes, the more depressed the local economy becomes, and the more the government has to cut back. This is why you can’t cut your way to growth. In the meantime, locals are left to calculate whether they can possibly afford a $25 cab ride each way to get to and from a job which pays $13 per hour. And to wonder how on earth their city can get out of its current predicament.


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I believe we will have a growing underground economy as people do what they must to survive. Maybe there will be a local car pool activity where one low wage-earner with a car earns a few bucks transporting other people to their jobs, if they have them. When things make no sense, we know there are emotions driving the decisions. Unfortunately, we seem to have far too many emotional adolescents in our electorate.

Posted by LA_Crystal | Report as abusive

Yes, Milwaukee and Detroit and Newark are perfect examples of austerity not working. The governments have been cut by cruel politicians who simply don’t make enough effort to raise taxes, and instead opt for cutting crucial programs. Instead of just suffering through the recent recession, they have been drastically reducing tax revenues for the past 15 years.

Posted by FuManchu | Report as abusive

Not owning a car is un-American.

Ms. Schulz needs to realize that all of her problems are her own fault. If she, and the millions like her, went out and bought cars then the economy would do much better and she would be able to get to work. Buying a house would improve the economy even more.

We cannot afford to support public transportation in this country as that money is reserved for higher purposes, such as ensuring that financiers can continue to eat in the finest restaurants, supporting fine regimes in oil-producing countries where her gas money will go, and purchasing ethanol from large agribusiness so that it can be put in the gas tank of the car that she refuses to buy.

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive

How is it possible that with economists crunching the numbers, that repercussions and their costs are not part of those equations?

But wait, these are the same Governments who protect corporations and Banks using possible repercussions (which are a lot less likely to put anyone on the streets) from paying fair tax rates.

Perhaps they felt that the trickle down from the tax rebates would ensure they all had jobs so it was moot…

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Excuse me if I can’t make myself feel bad for these people. You can lease a brand new car for $100/month. Not having a car is a pitiful, sorry excuse to stay unemployed.

Posted by Nameless | Report as abusive

You can lease a new car for $100/month? Seriously? Without any lump-sum payments? I don’t see how the math works on that one.

A car typically costs $3k-$5k a year to own and operate. That is a major expense for somebody earning $13/hr. It is cheaper than two cab rides daily, but still very costly.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I finally realized what it was that bothers me about stories like this. Reporters are masters at drawing overarching conclusions from a single supporting example, without an accompanying chain of logic. The conclusion you imply may be true, but you don’t demonstrate it in any way.

Any cutback or elimination of a government service is likely to hurt someone. The question is whether the service is more valuable than other things government can do with its limited resources, and whether a service is properly provided by government or the private sector (perhaps with appropriate incentives). You might argue that governments can easily raise taxes for more resources for such services, but there is also a delicate balance there.

But to take one example of someone who can’t easily make it to work without a government service, and imply that cutting the service hurts economic growth and recovery is ludicrous on its face. Yet we encounter such tales daily in our media.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Mr. Salmon’s article isn’t an argument for less government cutbacks. It’s an argument for privatizing Milwaukee’s transit services.

18 words to completely rebut both Mr. Salmon and a 3700 word article. This is easy work!

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive

Well said Felix. Overcompensated government workers are the source of all our problems.

Posted by CavelCap | Report as abusive

I’m curious as to how they make the decision to cut service rather than raise fares. If it affects people’s ability to get to work, they would pay higher fares; while I’m sure they would complain that they “can’t afford” them, they would find them quite affordable compared to this outcome.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive