Possible changes to UW-Madison's parking and transportation services — including a proposal to charge UW-Madison's 20,000 employees to ride the bus — could have far-reaching consequences for the campus and city.
About one year into the job, UW-Madison transportation director Patrick Kass announced this spring that he needs to make drastic changes or else raise parking rates considerably in order to cover an annual budget deficit of roughly $1 million.
One proposal is to begin charging UW-Madison employees between $50 and $150 per year for city bus passes, which have been free for the past seven years. That's because the university, which spends about $1.5 million per year on employee bus fare, is facing an expected 21 percent cost increase from Metro Transit.
Even with the new fee, taking the bus would still be less expensive than parking on campus. But some worry that charging for bus passes will remove the incentive to ride the bus, considered more environmentally friendly than driving.
"I think it's one of the nicer perks," said Mike Olson, who either takes the bus, bikes or drives to campus from his home on the East Side. "If I don't have to pay, it's encouraging me to take the bus...If I had to pay for the bus, maybe more often than not, I wouldn't take it."
It could also have serious implications for Metro Transit. Employees and students at UW-Madison and its affiliates make up roughly 50 percent of the city's bus ridership. If UW-Madison employees must begin paying, the city bus system could lose customers.
New buildings bring debt increase
The building boom on campus is partly to blame for the transportation department's predicament. As the university puts new buildings on surface parking lots, the transportation department must build expensive parking ramps in order to maintain its 13,000 parking spaces on campus, Kass said.
That means the department — which has an annual budget of about $17 million — is carrying $7.1 million in debt, about 50 percent more than five years ago. The state of Wisconsin also scooped up nearly $1 million in a reserve fund from the transportation department last year to help balance the state budget.
Kass said it's a misconception that the transportation department is flush with cash. He said the department only gets about 5 percent of its revenue from parking citations. Permit and visitor parking make up the bulk of revenue.
Permit parking for employees costs between $485 and $1,085 per year.
He said if the department doesn't make changes to its cost structure, it could mean up to a $700 increase in parking rates for permit holders over the next nine years.
"I'm not saying this is what we're doing, but this is what could happen if we don't change our business model," he said. "If we continue on the path we've been going on for the past few years, this is where we would have ended up. And I don't think this is a sustainable practice."
Besides charging for bus passes, the university is considering changing the way visitor parking is structured and controlling parking facilities at night. Through a pilot program, the university will begin offering an annual $300 evening permit this fall for people who come to campus at night.
Because parking is at such a premium, many employees opt to take the bus.
About 14,000 employees at UW-Madison and UW Hospital have a free bus pass, although only about 7,000 of those are active users. Under its current contract, the university pays about 95 cents every time someone takes a ride or transfers. A fare increase recommended by the city last year would bring the fare up to $1.15 per ride, which will cost the university between $300,000 and $400,000 more a year starting in September.
Gordon Graham, UW-Madison transportation administrator, said the university is open to a fare increase but it can't afford the one Metro is proposing without charging employees new fees or restricting ridership.
Metro spokesman Mick Rusch called the university "an extremely valuable partner. We're taking it very seriously with them."
Graham acknowledged asking employees to pay could affect ridership.
"We're concerned that will make a huge change," he said. "We're all about encouraging people to ride the bus. That's why we give the passes away. Having to charge makes us very nervous it will set back a lot of the progress we've made in getting people to ride the bus."