Our Views: Sponsors wise to keep funding Janesville-Milton-Whitewater bus

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Whitewater City Council waffled but in the end did the right thing by voting 6-2 Tuesday to keep contributing to a bus service running from Janesville to Whitewater.

Sure, a state grant that helped launch the Janesville-Milton-Whitewater Innovation Express is gone, meaning the three cities, UW-Whitewater and Generac Power Systems are being asked to pick up more costs. And, yes, some Whitewater officials see that few city residents board the buses and wonder whether city tax dollars are justified.

Most Whitewater council members, however, see the big picture. The buses benefit Generac, which makes power generators and is the city's largest private employer.

Dave Mumma, Janesville Transit System director, says the combined needs of Generac and Janesville residents were the impetus for the service.

“One of the reasons the Janesville City Council agreed to become involved in this in 2010 was that council members here saw a need in our community for employment, and here you had a large employer 20 miles away that needed workers. It has worked out very well.”

Numbers bear that out. Buses started rolling in April 2012 with three daily weekday trips and one Sunday evening, coinciding with Generac shifts. Riders totaled 5,167 by year's end. In part to attract more UW-W students, the service has added two more daily weekday trips, three Saturday runs and a second Sunday trip. Compared to 2012 totals, ridership through October almost tripled.

Janesville contributes the buses and maintenance, facilities, capital and administrative services. Mumma values that at $250,000. He figured operating costs at $360,000 this year and $395,000 next year. Despite the loss of the grant, state and federal aid still would pay about 55.5 percent of costs. Sponsors and fares would make up the rest.

Whitewater paid $10,000 last year. Mumma wanted Whitewater to boost that to $18,000, but the council agreed Tuesday to pay $12,000. He wanted Generac to pay $48,000 next year, but the company approved $18,000.

In contrast, Milton is fully on board. It increased its funding from $15,000 this year to $27,000 for 2014 because, as Mayor Brett Frazier said, “we felt the numbers speak for themselves and that the value is fairly self-evident.”

Mumma hopes UW-W again matches Whitewater's contribution but says the shortfalls might force service cutbacks. Still, he sounded diplomatic Wednesday.

“I think it's only natural for elected officials to ask questions and sort through things.”

Mumma thinks rider numbers show the service's value and hopes they keep growing.

“In November, we're continuing to see strong ridership, and we think we've proved the ridership and that there's a desire out there for the service. It's like anything else; it's how we're going to continue to pay for it. Money's tight for everyone.

“I appreciate the struggle they went through,” Mumma said of Whitewater's council members, “and I appreciate that they agreed to fund $12,000 this year.”

Supporters hailed the service as a boon to workers, employers and the general public. They suggested it could boost commerce by easing access to Janesville stores and restaurants and UW-W events.

Rising ridership shows a demand. It would be foolish to hit the brakes now.

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