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Thoughts on Weston Bus Services

by on August 19th, 2011

A couple of articles in the Wausau Daily Herald this week talk about bus service proposals and different things that can be done to minimize the financial impact this has on the rest of the community.

One of those things being recommended to scale back the bus service to the outlying communities that are served by this metropolitan-wide service.  According to one article, the bus goes through Schofield, Weston and Rothschild every hour, and a proposal would be to back that off to every other hour.  However, earlier this year, the Village of Weston already decided to discontinue the bus service effective with the end of this year, thus saving their taxpayers over $100,000.

In all of the communities that I work with, the Village of Weston has always been, hands down, the best stewards of taxpayer money.  Are they perfect – no, of course they are not.  But when compared to the other communities that make up the Wausau metro area, they are by far the best in that aspect.  Another thing that the Village of Weston has going for it is their culture of stakeholder involvement in major decisions.  When the DNR imposed new storm water regulations, a task force was created to find a way to pay to comply with these unfunded mandates in a way that was fair and equitable, the task force included stakeholders representing groups that would be affected.  More recently, when the Village was going to revamp its chronic nuisance ordinance, they quickly discovered the unintended consequences of their proposal and again created a stakeholder task force to provide input to allow the ordinance to accomplish what the Village wanted to accomplish while avoiding pitfalls that could be created by any ordinances that are created from the outside looking in.

The bus service has been no different.  Weston has been asking for input through its website.  It has been having discussions with various groups, and this service was on the agenda for the neighborhood meeting in the Crane Meadows neighborhood (that is the one that would be impacted the most by bus service).

However, the very reason that this service appears to be the low-hanging fruit for cuts is also the exact same reason why taking the normal “get input from everyone” approach may not work.  The simple fact is that there are not many people in Weston who ride the bus.  Weston is HUGE geographically, and with some of the zoning and development it was encouraging 10-15-20 years ago, Weston was, in its period of largest residential growth, the poster child for urban sprawl.  It is almost a requirement to own a car in Weston because nothing is ever close by.  There are few places where one can walk to the grocery store, or walk to a park.  This is especially true if you have physical limitations that make walking difficult.

The truth is that if I had to guess, over 95% of Weston residents have never been on a local bus and as such, Weston will get overwhelming feedback from those 95% of residents who don’t ride the bus that they are not happy with having to pay the bill.  The bus question is very similar to the neighborhood pool question that keeps coming back up year after year in the City of Wausau.

No rational person expects parks (which the pools in Wausau essentially are) to pull a profit.  If they were profitable ventures by nature, this would not be a city amenity and would instead be provided by for-profit companies.  But the question is not the loss of money those pools operate at, or even the bottom dollar number of that loss.  Instead, the question in Wausau is how many people benefit from that bottom dollar loss.  If 60% of the population utilized that service, operating at a loss is not that big of a deal.  However, if only 5% of the population utilize that service at the same price, the loss per user number gets much higher, and harder to justify.

And that is what the bus service in Weston is up against, not the cost of the service; but because so few people in Weston use the bus, the cost per resident that uses it seems disproportionate.

As a taxpayer in the Village of Weston, I applaud anything the Village does to keep my taxes there low.  However, as the philosophical big picture person that I sometime am (especially having spent the entire week mowing), I can also see this from a different perspective.

For years Weston was the definition of urban sprawl.  Large, single family subdivisions located on the outskirts of the metro area with very large lots.  It was what people wanted, and it is still what many people want.  However, if you work in Wausau, it could easily be a 20-30 minute drive to work, one-way.  As gas prices are pretty much locked in near $4 per gallon, and as we as a culture are starting to look more on what we can do to improve the world around us, sprawl has become a dirty word.

Weston has realized this, and they have changed in the last 10 years.  They market themselves as a progressive, modern, efficient community; and they live up to that.  They have been making efforts to make the community more walkable (with a sidewalk plan that has been implemented as streets get reconstructed).  They have been making efforts to be more bike friendly (designated bike lanes on Ross and the infamous Birch Street “bridge to nowhere” crossing Highway 29 are examples of this).  Even their hugely successful summer carnival, which is focused on healthy living, differs greatly from the communities around them.

How does the bus service fit in to all of this?  It fits with the image that Weston is trying to present that they care; that they care about their residents; that they care about their environment and the area’s natural resources.  Okay, I am going to say it – it shows that they are “green” (god, I hate that word).

Plus, it shows that they are inclusive.  It shows that they welcome people of all ages, and all demographics.  There are very few bus riders by choice in Weston (they exist, but are the minority of riders).  Those riders on the bus are mainly there because it is their only option.  Many are elderly or have disabilities that make them unable to drive.  Or some are just on the other end of the economic scale and cannot afford to drive.

Many of these people came to Weston and chose to live where they live because there was bus service.  By losing this service completely, they will probably be forced to move to Wausau.  I know Weston wants to be the mecca for young professionals; but does that mean that is all that they want?  Are they really trying to do the Rib Mountain thing and end bus service in order to eliminate an element from within their Village that they deem undesirable?  I can’t believe that is the case…. No… I WON’T believe that is the case.  (However, I think back to one of Village President Fred Schuster’s original articles in the Weston newsletter where he made it very clear what he thought of the multi-family development that was expanding the Village’s tax base as the housing market was starting to slow… he actually used in the newsletter the word “Ugh”.)

Some say the American dream is a house with the white picket fence.  I say the American dream is a car and the freedom to go where you want to go, when you want to.  That is a cultural issue, it is in our DNA as Midwesterners.  That will take a long time to change.  However, a hip, happening, progressive, inclusive community that is part of a large metro area should be served by public transportation.  Could this service be scaled back?  Could there be other things done to help make the financial burden on taxpayers who don’t ride the bus less (like me)?  … Maybe.  I don’t have the answers, so I am not going to pretend to.

However, I do personally feel that Weston needs to carefully revisit the question of having a public bus service.  Not just from a simple dollars and cents, majority rules perspective; but also from the aspect of what having public transportation system does to a community’s image of being inclusive, progressive, and environmentally conscious.

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