Is Wausau transit obsolete?

Transit Director Greg Seubert gave city leaders a dire warning last week about the future of bus service in Wausau, saying that the current system could be obsolete in as few as five years.

The transit system is at a crossroads, Seubert says, and its long-term viability is at risk. Ridership plummeted to 577,000 last year, down from 810,000 ten years ago. Residents and community leaders have long complained about the limited service hours of Wausau’s transit system. But expanding service has been an uphill battle for years, as budgets tightened and federal and state aid were sharply reduced.

The cost of failure is potentially steep, Seubert told the council. If the bus goes away, Wausau will be the only Wisconsin community of its size without a public transit system. Attracting young professionals and meeting thee travel needs of a shrinking workforce will be more challenging.

“And I don’t think that’s something you want to put on a promotional flyer,” Seubert says.

But Seubert says the transit system can be saved. A regional transit authority would make expanding to outlying communities easier, Seubert says, but Wisconsin is one of the few states that prohibit such groups. Seubert encouraged council members to contact state lawmakers and encourage them to pass legislation to ease those restrictions. Seubert also suggested partnering with neighboring municipalities to expand service and share expenses.

Lisa Rasmussen, council president, says the council is newly unified in their determination to improve service and gain support from other community leaders. Rasmussen says she and Mayor Rob Mielke have already met with the Wausau Chamber and other members of the business community to discuss how improving transit can spur economic growth.

“Willing partners around the table together can do more than one community alone,” Rasmussen says.

Transit was one of five top priorities identified by council members at a May retreat, Rasmussen says. Restoring public trust and transparency, job and residential growth, addressing homelessness and continuing efforts to reduce drug use and crime rounded out the list.