Waiting for the bus

(First published in the November 1, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Advocates like Kathi Zoern are counting on a new group to finally set a course for improving local public transit

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Kathi Zoern, 59, outside the downtown Wausau transfer station. Zoern, who rides the bus nearly every day because she has a visual impairment, says she has heard plenty of empty talk about improving transit.

A little more than 10 years ago, there were hardly any bicycle or pedestrian accommodations to speak of in the Wausau metro area. No bike lanes and only a small amount of trails.

This year, Wausau was named a second most bike friendly city in the country, according to PeopleForBikes ranking. Boulder was named third and bike-mecca Portland came in fourth.

The Wausau area has been adding bicycle accommodations at a fast pace compared to other areas of the country. It all started with a vision laid out in a plan that was formulated by a committee formed through Marathon County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

That’s right: A government committee jump-started a movement that literally changed the landscape.

Now the MPO hopes to do the same for mass transit. The MPO last month started the process of forming a Citizens Transit Advisory Committee and is currently seeking members. The goal? To do for transit what the bike/ped committee has done for those two modes of transportation: Get the ball moving on real change.

And it’s needed, transit advocates say. Wausau’s bus system is in what one national consultant calls the typical transit death spiral. The service shrinks in response to budget cuts and decreased investment. That results in fewer people being able to use the service. And that lower ridership then makes further investment hard to justify.

That hasn’t affected public support, according to a survey released earlier this year by Marathon County’s planning department. In all but Rib Mountain, the majority of people in Wausau metro communities support some kind of mass transit. The survey was part of the MPO’s five-year transit plan, of which the transit advisory committee is a part.

The outline they’ll create might become the future of mass transit around Wausau. It’s something that someone needs to figure out soon, as the population continues to age, and as younger generations—who expect alternative modes of transportation— remain a target demographic the Wausau area is trying to attract.

The answer the committee will have to answer is not just “if” public transportation should be improved, but “how.”

The missing elements

Kathi Zoern, 59, has a visual impairment, and has grown tired of hearing the same conversations over and over, at meeting after meeting.

She has used public transit all her life because of her disability, and became an advocate four years ago when Weston considered dropping out of the agreement that brought Metro Ride bus service to the village. Weston discontinued the service starting in 2015, which left Schofield and Rothschild no longer able to participate, and thus resulted in bus services being eliminated in a large portion of the Wausau metro area. For the last two years Zoern has served on Wausau’s transit commission.

So for years she has seen the wheels spinning. Some committee will have a long discussion about the merits of public transit, why it’s important, why someone should do something about it, and that’s about as far as it goes. “It’s all talk, talk, talk,” Zoern says.

The yes or no question has been answered to death. Public transportation in a metro area the size of Wausau’s is a necessity if the community wants to bill itself as a competitive city that can attract the best and brightest. The survey results bore that out. More than 70% of Wausau residents said they support paying for a transit system, with majorities in nearly all communities saying the same. Surely a majority of those residents don’t ride the bus themselves. So the survey seems to reflect a sentiment that public transit is an expectation in a city this size, and should serve those who need it or want an alternative to owning a car.

The problem is in “selling” the idea of transit to the community, and especially to businesses that might help: There aren’t any plans on the table for what public transit could become, says Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Dave Eckmann. “Businesses will support an efficient and effective use of public resources,” Eckmann says. “The question isn’t yes or no, it’s what.”

Eckmann sees the chamber playing an important role in helping shape public transit, but there needs to be a real idea to sell.

National consultant Jarrett Walker, who famously helped turn around failing transit systems in Seattle and other major cities, says Wausau’s situation sounds like a classic transit death spiral. “In a city your size, the transit system isn’t justified solely or even largely by ridership anyway,” Walker says. “It’s justified by all kinds of other benefits, including access to opportunity for people who can’t or can’t afford to drive.”

Right now, that access is limited. Metro Ride operates only weekdays, 6:00 am to 6:30 pm. That puts bus transportation out of reach for anyone who works late or on a weekend, for example. A Wausau city budget request to add Saturday service for 2019 isn’t likely to be funded, says Mayor Bob Mielke.

Walker identifies four needs a transit system needs to address to be successful: Communication, emissions, labor and safety, and space. Of those, communication is one of Metro Ride’s biggest problems.

There are apps that can show when the bus is coming, where that bus is now, and when it will arrive at a destination. That technology is becoming more affordable all the time, says Metro Ride Director Greg Seubert, but isn’t available here. “Accessing information in real time is the norm in many aspects of our lives and transit needs to move in that direction,” Seubert says.

Communication and hours of service need to be improved so that Metro Ride is palatable and useful to more than just the people who absolutely need it, says Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger. To keep transit from “dying on the vine like the Wausau Center mall,” Karger says, public transit will need champions who can come up with a system scaled to the community, and is inviting enough that downtown employees, for example, would choose it over simply taking their cars.

And most important, Karger points out, it can’t be led by the city of Wausau. Seubert, director of Metro Ride, agrees. “The stakes are high,” Karger says. “A lot of young professionals want to live in a community where you don’t need a car.”

A cross-section of perspectives

The MPO’s Citizen Transit Advisory Committee will have 11-15 members with at least one person from the five metro municipalities: Wausau, Rib Mountain, Schofield, Rothschild and Weston. It also will include business people, advocates for the disabled, school district officials, etc. “We really see it as a way for people to come together and talk about transit in a focused way,” says county planner Andrew Lynch. “It really will be about however they choose to direct their efforts. In some sense, we want to leave it up to them; we don’t have all the answers… We’re at that point where we’re considering all options, because we have to.”

County leaders and transit advocates like Kathi Zoern are counting on the involvement of a cross-section of people. If it worked for bicycles, this approach can do the same for public buses. They hope.

Try transit yourself

Think it’s easy to get around Wausau without a car? Prove it.

The local advocacy group NAOMI and the Marathon County Housing and Homelessness Coalition will host its first Greater Wausau Metro Area Transit Challenge this month. People are challenged to spend as many as three days leaving their cars at home and getting around by other means. Participants will be given a monthly bus pass and a journal/transit passport to record their daily activities and expenses. Taxi fare to destinations not accessible by bus will be reimbursed.

People can participate any time between Nov. 13-15. Signup is open through Nov. 7: Email [email protected] or call 715-301-8385.