When Mayor Dave Cieslewicz pushed through a 50-cent bus-fare hike earlier this year, opponents predicted a catastrophic drop in riders.
It's probably too soon for either side to claim they were right, but Madison Metro ridership has been dropping since May, a month after the cash fare rose from $1.50 to $2. And the more important number - paid ridership - began dropping in July.
Overall, paid ridership is up about 306,000 over last year, but much of that gain came in the three months before the fare increase went into effect. Paid ridership climbed more slowly in April, May and June. But in July, paid ridership dropped about 29,000 over last year. August saw paying customers fall 16,000.
"At the time of the debates back in February, they brought out their transit analyst and she said we have all these studies around the world, but they just don't apply to Madison," says Tim Wong, an opponent of the fare hike and a former member of the city's Transit and Parking Commission. "It turned out that it did."
Cieslewicz dismisses the drop, saying: "It's important to not draw too many conclusions based on a month here or a month there."
The mayor admits the hike may have hurt ridership, but says the economy also played a role: "Gas prices held at very low numbers. You can't say what would have happened if gas had stayed at $4 a gallon."
Wong says the numbers are deceptive, because UW and MATC students have passes that allow unlimited rides. Each ride gets counted, but the revenue stays the same no matter how often they ride.
Carl DuRocher, a longtime Transit Committee member who opposed the hike and was not reappointed earlier this year (Madison.gov 5/21/2009), worries that the fare increase stalled transit growth.
"Without the fare increase, it would have continued to go up," he says, adding that a robust bus system is good for the economy and environment. "Ridership growth in my mind is beneficial to the function of the city and the whole society."
No recession for parks
Some members of Madison's Common Council have challenged, so far without success, the mayor's plans to include money for a downtown library and renovated Edgewater Hotel in his 2010 capital budget. But one area where they seem eager to increase spending is on city parks.
Several alders have proposed amendments to add parks projects. Ald. Mike Verveer proposed $120,000 to finish restoring and add bathrooms to the Brittingham Boathouse, the oldest public building in Madison. Alds. Bridget Maniaci and Mark Clear proposed $40,000 for signs, banners and landscaping at Breese Stevens Field and $15,000 for recreational equipment and seating at Reynolds Field. Alds. Verveer, Satya Rhodes-Conway and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff proposed $125,000 to renovate Olive Jones Park, which is also the playground for Randall School.
One reason the alders are being so generous is that the money doesn't come from the general fund and won't affect the tax rate. Most of it comes from impact fees: money developers or homebuilders pay when constructing new residential property, in lieu of providing green space. The impact fees can't be used for maintenance or operating costs, but they can go for capital improvements.
Some alders were unaware the money was available, but the comptroller's office included the fund information in the budget. Ald. Paul Skidmore would like to consider using the money from impact fees "to build new police stations and fire stations as well."
Starting a dialogue
The third season of Dialogues on Homelessness kicks off Saturday, Oct. 17, at the downtown Madison Public Library, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. It is free and open to everyone.
The eight-month series - meeting one Saturday each month - is aimed at bringing people from all walks of life together to talk about homelessness, share stories and build community.
"This is very much about process," says organizer Donna Asif. "There have been tangibles that have come out of this, but it's really about relationships and community. Dialogue is listening without judgment."
The sessions are shaped by the people who attend, but focus largely on storytelling techniques. One method uses photo mapping and GPS to show connections between people.
Results are hard to measure, but Asif says, "I know that people who had passed each other for years and had never acknowledged each other began to exchange greetings and see each other as neighbors."