By Eelisa Jones
About a dozen Milwaukee residents braved ominous weather last Thursday, April 9, to participate in a reggae-themed fundraiser for the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union (MTRU) at Riverwest Public House Cooperative, 815 E. Locust St., from 7 p.m. to about 10 p.m.
“Get Up Stand Up: A FUNdraiser” featured a multi-hour reggae set list, MTRU-themed t-shirt sales, two crockpots filled with warm, spicy soup, and ample conversation about the past and current status of Milwaukee’s public transit system.
The event also offered attendees a chance to sign up for membership and volunteer opportunities.
By the end of the night, fundraiser participants gave about $300 to MTRU in donations, membership fees, and t-shirt sales. MTRU first organized in 2007 in response to several transit funding cuts that resulted in decreased service and higher fares.
Competition for local revenue combined with firm opposition to increased property taxes from then County Executive Scott Walker pressured Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) into compromising services and increasing fares in order to keep up with rising operating costs. Upon its establishment, MTRU filed a number of successful grant applications with Wisconsin Community Fund, Forward Community Investments, and RESIST, Inc.
The organization consists of mostly volunteers and lacks an official hierarchy. Among MTRU’s objectives are 24-hour service, affordable fares, expanded express services, the use of clean fuel, and local management.
“MTRU is made up of transit riders working toward transit justice in the metro Milwaukee area,” said Nick Demarsh, one of the group’s organizers. “Transit justice is really at the crossroads of many of the most important issues in Milwaukee including racial, environmental, and economic justice.”
DeMarsh said that Milwaukee’s unemployment crisis – especially within the black male population – is not a matter of job scarcity, but instead one of lacking transit access to potential employers.
Transit cuts between 2001 and 2007 in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha, and Washington Counties effectively separated transit users from 1,713 employers, according to a 2008 report from University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development.
In addition to advocating for increased route coverage, MTRU members are also pushing for local MCTS management. MTRU contributed to Milwaukee’s 2013 push back against the proposed privatization of MCTS via an out-of-state contract.
The County Board indefinitely shelved the bidding process in early 2014.
Victor Washington, a 54- year-old Milwaukee native and attendee of Thursday’s fundraiser, said that he can relate to MTRU’s push for better service.
Washington began taking public transit when he was eleven-years-old.
Washington has used the transit system for school, work, and recreation.
He said he would like to see more express routes from his neighborhood to downtown Milwaukee and shopping areas like Mayfair and Southridge Malls.
Another attendee, 28- year-old Hillary Wilson, said she looks forward to seeing MTRU expand and grow. While living in California, Wilson was a part of Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union.
“We need a strong constituency of riders and advocates to ensure the survival of the transit system [in Milwaukee],” Wilson said.