Bump in the Road

Dec. 4, 2013

2014 bus system funding uncertain

By Michael Riley

The Innovation Express bus service, connecting Whitewater to Milton and Janesville, is facing a funding shortfall for 2014.

City Manager Cameron Clapper has requested to discuss the possible bus routes with the current funding at the Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.

The three municipalities, as well as Generac Power Systems and several higher education institutions including UW-Whitewater, have supported the ride-share program since it was established in 2012.

The Janesville Transit System, which operates the Innovation Express, projected the service to cost around $395,000 in 2014.  Transit officials requested the three Whitewater participants, the city, UW-W and Generac, contribute a combined $84,000.

Generac has been a main contributor to Innovation Express because of the large number of employees that use the system.

Amidst the approval of the 2014 budget, a 75-minute deliberation took place on Nov. 20, when Whitewater Common Council in a 4-2 vote agreed to contribute $12,000 to the Innovation Express in 2014, on the condition that a decision for funding in 2015 be made no later than August.  UW-Whitewater is expected to match the decreasing figure.

Generac has pledged $18,000, a decrease in its funding from prior years, leaving a shortfall of $42,000.  It remains uncertain how the deficit will be addressed in terms of routes and frequency.

Council member Stephanie Abbott, who voted against the contribution, suggested the city consider more innovative ideas beyond regional transit.

“I’m not going to support this,” Abbott said.  “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

The commitment from Whitewater went from a $20,000 split between the city and the university in 2013 to the 2014 commitment of $18,413 each.

A change in funding was due in part to the end of a Supplemental Transportation Rural Assistant Program grant by the Department of Transportation, which only funds start up programs, but does not sustain them.

To support the bus system, the city had to approve $18,413 in cuts elsewhere in the city budget.  On Nov. 20, Clapper presented a balanced budget with a total savings of $31,182 from the 2014 budget, including a reduction in assessor services by $95,000, safety programs by $3,000 and ride share-fund by $10,000. The state payment for service for UW-Whitewater was $8,682 more than expected.

Despite the cuts being available, not all members of the council were committed to paying the full $18,413, especially since Generac was reducing its contribution from $26,000 in 2013 to $18,000 in 2014.

Until Nov. 20, the Common Council had been under the impression Generac would be contributing more than $18,000 toward the service in 2014.

Vice president of operations at Generac, Tim Hearden, said the city should continue its funding of the bus service, and it was a “misconception” that Generac was the primary benefactor of the bus service.  He said Generac was providing “seed money” to the program so it could get started, but the company had intended to contribute less each year.  He added that Generac eventually expected to only pay $10,000 a year to the service.

The figures showed Generac was going to contribute about $47,000 in 2014.

While Generac is a clear benefactor of the Innovation Express, Hearden and the council were at odds over ridership.

“There’s a misconception we’re the only ones benefitting from this,” Hearden said. He asserted about a third of riders were actual Generac employees.

A number of the members sitting on the Whitewater Common Council disagreed and asserted Generac employees actually hover into the 80-percent range within the city’s ridership figures.

“What you’ve decided is you don’t want the service,” Council member James Winship said to Hearden.  “This council is not going to be able to come up with $40,000.  We consider the ball to be in Generac’s court.”

Winship proposed to “spilt the difference.” He moved the City of Whitewater contribute $12,000 to the bus service, but re-evaluate the status next summer prior to the next round of budgeting for 2015.

Council President Patrick Singer voted against the $12,000 contribution from the city along with Abbott.

Complicating the matter was the local ridership was showing an increase in 2013 over 2012.  Some on the Council discussed the Generac employees who relied on the bus to get to their jobs, but these workers neither contributed to its tax base nor generally shopped locally.

“I want to keep it going.” Winship said.  “I want to see if there are some other resources for support later on.  I think that the council doing something at this point was important, but also to agree that we need to know better so that we do not wind up doing this at the very end of November or December every year.”

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