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Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's mass transit budget is absolute magic.
It has to be. It's the only way it will work.
The county executive, as he does throughout his 2006 budget, relies on things that don't happen in the real world to make the transit books balance. He's combined gimmicks, games and financial shenanigans to conjure up a transit budget that relies on crossed fingers, crossed toes and wishing really, really hard upon a star.
A little budget alchemy has long been a proud Milwaukee County tradition, but with his 2006 transit offering, Walker may have slid over that soft line between illusion and delusion.
This budget is likely to crash sometime in the middle of next year if the county board doesn't fix it. The danger is that transit service will crash with it.
This is no small deal. Some 20 percent of households in the city of Milwaukee don't have access to automobiles, according to the latest census figures. These folks rely on the transit for getting to school, getting to work and getting around in general. Service cuts and fare increases make the working poor a little poorer.
To be fair, this mess isn't all Walker's fault. The state froze mass transit operating assistance for two years, then raised it a paltry $3 million statewide for the 2005-07 biennium. (Compare that to the $30 million the state budgeted for doing just the studies for the I-94 North-South corridor reconstruction project.)
Walker's gifts of magic include taking a bad situation and transforming it into something infinitely worse. Anticipating a $1.4 million increase in state and federal transit aid - far less than needed to cover increasing costs -- Walker cut proposed tax levy support for transit by $2.9 million.
He makes it all work by pulling numbers out of his magician's budget hat and places south.
Presto! Walker says he will get 10 percent more in fare revenue from 2 million fewer passengers.
Voila! The transit budget projects fuel costs at $2 a gallon; elsewhere in the budget, it's pegged at $2.20 per gallon. Another budget gap closed through amazing advanced monetary prestidigitation.
Abracadabra! Contractors hired for the Transit Plus program, a transportation service for the disabled, will provide more rides per hour. Walker doesn't explain how this will occur, just as the magician doesn't explain how his trick works.
Shazam! There will be 14,000 fewer Transit Plus rides than there were in 2004.
That's not explained either. Will our county executive simply make those people disappear?
Or perhaps those 14,000 people won't need Transit Plus. Perhaps the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the wounded will heal.
So maybe it isn't magic Walker is counting on.
Maybe it's a miracle.
- Schuldt, a former Milwaukee newspaper reporter, runs the Milwaukee Web site storyhill.net.
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