Free Connect 1 rides end Monday -- here's how the new payment system will work

NOW: Free Connect 1 rides end Monday -- here’s how the new payment system will work

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Free rides on Milwaukee County's first Bus Rapid Transit line are coming to an end. Payment will be required starting on Monday, April 15, and the new fare system will be different from any other Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) route.

Riders will not be able to pay at the familiar fare boxes next to the driver. Instead, Connect 1 passengers will have to prepay before they board. There are three ways to pay:

  • The Umo mobile app
  • A WisGo card, which can be bought and reloaded at more than 120 places
  • One-time tickets, which can be bought at BRT stations for $2 and are good for 90 minutes

MCTS Marketing Director Anna Schryver said the reason for only allowing prepayment on the Connect 1 route was to avoid wait times when a particular stop is crowded.

"It's the 'R' that makes Bus Rapid Transit rapid," she said. "You no longer are in line or waiting for someone to look for their money. They're already prepaid before they boarded the bus."

These validators will be placed at each Connect 1 stop. Riders will scan here to pay before boarding the bus.

What is Connect 1? And why is MCTS now charging for it?

Jermaine McLemore said he rides the Connect 1 almost every day. As a passenger who takes other routes to navigate the city, he hoped to keep having at least one route that didn't require him to pay.

"It's a good route. I think people appreciate the free rides," McLemore said. "I think they should just keep it how it is, you know?"

The Connect One, which launched last June, runs from the Park-and-Ride at Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa and the intersection of E. Wisconsin Ave. and W. Van Buren St. The route will eventually continue to the multimodal stop at the under-construction Couture building along the lakefront.

Schryver said the Connect 1 is the 7th busiest among MCTS' 44 routes. Average daily ridership ranges between 3,300 and 3,600 seasonally.

MCTS originally planned to start collecting fares last September, but Schryver said supply chain delays kept the validation machines from arriving until this spring. Another minor weather-related delay pushed back the start of fare collection from April 8 to April 15.

How will the new system be enforced?

Whether riders are asked to show proof they paid for their Connect One ride will be a matter of chance.

"We will have spot checkers, periodically, who will be using a hand validator that's very similar to the validator here," Schryver said. "It's similar to the validator on the bus [for other routes]."

If riders do not have proof they paid, Schryver said transit security officers will let them off with a warning. She said security will not force people off the bus because they didn't pay and was not worried fare evasion would become an issue.

"We don't see that happening," she said. "We see the people of Milwaukee County paying their fair share to ride the bus."

McLemore said he didn't mind the lenient policy. He added drivers on other routes already allow passengers to board without paying.

"I don't think that's a problem. I think that's fair," he said. "They will ask the driver, like 'Hey, can I get on this bus for free? I don't have any money', and the bus driver will say yeah, normally."

Schryver said security will collect data on where nonpayment most commonly occurs and eventually spend more time at those stops. 

For MCTS, maximizing efficiency and exposure for the Connect 1 are bigger priorities than fare enforcement. Schryver said in 2023, the $29,731,941 passengers paid in fares accounted for only 17% of the system's revenue. MCTS gets the vast majority of its money from federal, state and local funding.

Planning is now underway for a north-south Connect 2 route, which is set to run between Bayshore Mall in Glendale and the IKEA in Oak Creek. The vast majority of the route would run along 27th St. Schryver said the goal is for Connect 2 to launch in 2028.

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