At NCMM, we are always on the lookout for examples of public engagement and inclusion. This blog post offers wonderful details about an extended effort that concentrated on both and culminated in an impressive transportation conference. The conference is only a remarkable early step on a path to improved transportation options for the people of Wisconsin.
Transit Enthusiasts “Arrive Together” to Discuss Pressing Changes Needed in Wisconsin
By Chris Fox, Mobility Coordinator, Milwaukee County Transit System
December 3rd, 2016, was a particularly windy Saturday in Milwaukee, but it did not prevent a diverse group of over 300 transit advocates, riders, agency staff and elected officials, from assembling at the inaugural “Arrive Together: Building a 21st Century Transportation System in Wisconsin,” a transportation-focused summit. The event was held at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and representatives from 35 organizations from around the state attended, including the Wisconsin Association of Mobility Managers. The event was organized as a collaborative effort among the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG), 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, Sierra Club: John Muir Chapter, the Wisconsin Green Muslims, and WISDOM.
The attendance was encouraging for a primarily auto-oriented city and state. Traditionally, public transit has a stigma of primarily serving second-class citizens who cannot afford cars and those who have disabilities. I have attended other transportation conferences, but this one was unique, due to the vast mix of participants of all ages, ethnicities, and financial backgrounds. Among the attendees were environmentalists, disability rights activists, transit union members and smart growth community supporters, as well as advocates for alternate forms of transportation, including the Wisconsin Bike Federation.
Stories shared with DOT
The day-long event kicked off with a listening session offering attendees the chance to voice their opinions to US Department of Transportation (DOT) officials on the status of the state-wide transportation system. Some of the comments and stories shared were very specific to certain transit systems, such as the potential elimination of Milwaukee County’s GO Pass free ride program and the increase in fares for 2017. Broader requests called for an overhaul of statewide transportation funding, the creation of regional transportation authorities, and a universal fare system that could be used across all agencies and modes.
Next, the public had the privilege to listen to several high-profile speakers. Pastor Marilyn Miller from Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) energized the crowd with a motivating speech, pleading for transportation transformation, and calling on the attendees to get involved to reach the goal of an accessible, multi-modal transportation system for all Wisconsinites.
Transportation integral to civil rights
The first session featured Aaron Mair, the president of the Sierra Club, who spoke about the important role transportation has had on racial justice and equality. Mair touched on the importance of unity, tying in his experience from the Naval Education and Training Center. He had the audience repeat the phrase “resist, recruit, train and sustain” multiple times. He stressed patience and reminded the listeners that impactful change can take time, sometimes decades, using the example of his decade spent to shut down an incinerator in the inner-city of Albany, New York. He highlighted the similarities between the environmental justice and civil rights movements, as well as the symbiotic relationship between access to transportation and elevating one’s life.
Wisconsin event: Example for other states to follow
Leslie Proll, USDOT Director of the Office of Civil Rights, spoke last, expressing how impressed she was with the turnout at the event, and proclaiming that other states should use the event as an example of how to unite to address issues. Proll went on to spotlight that, even today, cities are feeling the effects of past patterns and practices of discrimination, especially in the disconnect between impoverished people living in the inner city and accessibility to jobs in the suburbs – issues that can be traced back to redlining practices. Proll said it was not an accident that US cities evolved to the way they are today, and it is up to leaders to embrace responsibility and invite the community to be involved in the planning process so that they can connect people with real opportunities they deserve. She urged leaders not to “treat issues like silos” – instead bottom-up communication on intermodal transportation is key; what affects rail can also affect bikes, pedestrians and buses.
From here, breakout sessions discussed topics ranging from bicycling equity and transportation civil rights, to connecting businesses with Wisconsin’s workforce and how to effectively push for increased funding and support for transit at the state level.
Political leaders and Wisconsin’s Bus Lady
The final session included comments from State Representative Daniel Riemer, White House Fellow Sharice Davids, Cassie Steiner from the Sierra Club, and Kathy Zoern, a visually impaired transit advocate, dubbed Wausau, Wisconsin’s “Bus Lady.” The consensus is that transportation and equity issues cannot be ignored any longer; elected officials must make a change to the distribution of resources that are allocated to communities for public transportation if Wisconsin is to remain competitive in the future. The most recent requested state transportation biennium budget is $6.64 billion, and shows 45.8% of transportation funds going to highways, whereas transit receives only 3.8%!
Milwaukee moves forward with transit and multimodal connections
Attitudes toward transit investment are starting to shift, however, especially in Milwaukee, with the County enacting the first ever wheel tax of $30 per registered vehicle to raise funds for transit and other infrastructure projects. With this, a new streetcar (already in construction) will connect the intermodal Amtrak/Greyhound bus station to hotels and attractions downtown, while a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) 9-mile route will provide an improved transit connection to the two largest employment hubs in the metro area.
The BRT service will also benefit drivers by taking more than 6,100 cars off the road (according to estimates) and reducing the number of miles people drive by 17 million a year. Fewer cars mean less congestion on local roads, and cleaner air for everyone.
Conference planning and groundwork took more than a year
After the summit, I had the opportunity to speak with the event organizer, Peter Skopec from WISPIRG, who informed me that planning began more than a year prior, in October of 2015. After spending years developing relationships with environmental and social justice groups, the coalition partners held community events around the state in the fall of 2016 to engage the local population and ignite discussion. The small format meetings led to the conversation of creating a statewide conference to address the issues mentioned above and to explore changes that will come with the increase in Wisconsin’s senior population and the many people who will be aging in place.
MATC’s downtown campus was selected for the conference because of its proximity to public transit options and the percentage of public transit users in the metro area. Saturday was selected because typical transit riders would not be able to get off work to attend this type of event during the week. The individual speakers were invited through connections with coalition partners and courses were selected and organized based on the feedback from the local community events.
Diversity of attendees encouraging
When I spoke with Skopec, he was extremely excited about the attendees’ diversity, and that the breakout sessions discussions reflected varied opinions on how to fix current problems. When asked about a future conference, Skopec said the coalition will continue to host the smaller local events, but in regards to making the summit an annual event, he would not commit to a timeframe due to the amount of energy it took to get this one set up.
The tips Skopec gives to anyone looking to re-create this type of event would be to have an abundance of time and patience to develop relationships, as well as deciding what message to communicate to the public. Based on how the public responds, the organizer can then develop goals that he or she can use as benchmarks and topics of discussion to form a conference that will attract attendees. He said “recruit as many volunteers as you can to help because you are going to need a dedicated team!”
Inclusion is key – people and politicians
The key to organizing an event like this is inclusion. Since transportation is a vital issue that has an impact on society as a whole, everyone and anyone should be invited to be a part of the discussion. No existing event can provide a better networking platform that has potential to make change a reality; it is important to have a place where ideas and concerns can be brought forth, and create unity among supporters and empower citizens by connecting them directly to their representatives.
The crucial point I took away from the event is that regardless of your background, social situation, or the status of your employment, you can always make a difference. There are ways to make your voice heard, but goals cannot be achieved by any one person – it must be a collective effort.
A beginning and a plan for realizing transportation goals
Now that the summit is over, what is next for Wisconsin? In January, the state legislature began debating the 2-year transportation budget. Everyone who attended the summit was given their local representative’s contact information so they could lend their voices to those determining future funding. In March, WISDOM will be holding a Madison Day of Action, where hundreds of people from across the state will converge at the state capitol for trainings and meetings with state leaders. If we all arrive together with the same goals in mind, universal, accessible transportation for all people can be accomplished.