Innovation Express could cut Whitewater route

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Neil Johnson and Jake Magee
August 26, 2015

JANESVILLE—When the announcement came Wednesday that Generac Power Systems would no longer sponsor the Janesville Transit System's Janesville-Milton-Whitewater bus route, Larry Johns concluded he'd be out of a job.

“I won't get there," said Johns, 55, after climbing off the bus at the downtown transfer center.

Johns lives in Janesville but works as an assembly worker at Generac in Whitewater. He said he has no other way to make the trip.

“It's going to put a few people out of their jobs,” he said.

With Generac's sponsorship gone, Janesville Transit System Director Becca Smith said Wednesday she is recommending the city eliminate all Innovation Express routes to Whitewater effective Dec. 30.

Generac, a main sponsor and financial supporter of the Innovation Express, is pulling funding for the commuter bus service starting Jan. 1, Smith said.

Generac informed the transit system of its decision in June, Smith said.

This year, Generac paid $15,400 to support the Innovation Express. The bus route transports a portion of the company's commuting workers to and from its plant at 757 N. Newcomb St. in Whitewater.

The company's decision now leaves the Innovation Express with nearly no financial support in Whitewater next year.

UW-Whitewater and the city of Whitewater, the Innovation Express's two other major Whitewater sponsors, decided last year to eliminate what would have been as much as $30,000 in annual matched funding for the bus route.

University and city of Whitewater officials at the time said Innovation Express ridership to Whitewater was too low to justify financial support.

Smith said the Innovation Express will continue running its scheduled routes to Whitewater and Milton the rest of this year, but she said the Janesville City Council would have to decide in its budget process whether to eliminate the Whitewater route and whether to continue with a Janesville-to-Milton service.

Smith is recommending that the routes to Whitewater be cut, primarily because of lack of local support there, she said.

A city decision would come in November, and public hearings and input from stakeholders would be factors, Smith said.

Meanwhile, Smith said, the transit system is in talks with Milton officials over options for the Innovation Express, including potential corporate sponsorships, although she would not elaborate.

Some riders have used the route to get to work in Milton. Others ride from Milton to Whitewater for work, officials said.

The Innovation Express routes between Janesville, Milton and Whitewater have run since April 2012.

Transit service has tapered the number of routes in the last three years from four and five weekday routes a day to three a day, in part because of decreased funding from sponsors and less-than-heavy use by UW-Whitewater student commuters, officials said.

Overall, ridership for the Innovation Express grew from 19,000 in 2013 to 24,700 in 2014, even after the transit service cut routes from five trips a day to four during the week, according to transit system records.

The Innovation Express in 2014 added two daily stops at Milton's Blackhawk Technical College Campus.

This year, ridership on the bus route was at 6,750 through the end of July, transit records show. It's on pace this year to have fewer than half the riders it had last year.

The route ended Sunday trips in May, but it's not clear how that impacted ridership.

The Gazette could not reach Generac officials for comment Wednesday.

It's not clear how many Generac workers now ride to and from work on the Innovation Express each week, and what the company's plans would be if the bus route to Whitewater is cut.

Milton is interested in keeping the routes open, Milton City Administrator Al Hulick said. From January to July, more than 5,000 people either got on or off a bus at Freedom Graphics Systems in Milton, he said.

"We see a pretty substantial amount of riders that use it for the Freedom Graphics facility in Milton," Hulick said. "We know that it's being utilized, and we know that there's a need here in the community for that."

It wasn't clear Wednesday if the city of Whitewater or the university plan to revisit their sponsorship. The Gazette could not reach city of Whitewater officials Wednesday for comment.

Smith said Generac's announcement came early enough for Janesville to look for other sponsors and explore the option of keeping the Innovation Express running to Milton.

The transit system doesn't have full estimates of how much the city could save eliminating routes to Whitewater, but Smith said it would cut fuel consumption and vehicle maintenance.

That would take pressure off remaining sponsors or potential new backers to offset the Innovation Express's price tag, which has cost as much $450,000 a year, city records indicate.

The bus route's cost to Janesville and Milton could remain the same or even lower without Generac's contribution, depending on how routes are altered, Hulick said.

“It's gonna be difficult, but we want to have the conversation to keep some level of service in Milton," he said.

The Milton City Council will have an "advisory discussion" Tuesday to brainstorm ideas. The city this year is kicking in $30,000 for the service to help keep it running.

The route is paid in part by state and federal sources and ridership fees and in the past has had as much as $80,000 in funding from sponsors.

The city of Janesville agreed last year to pay $15,900 to support the Innovation Express in 2015.

-- Reporter Elliot Hughes contributed to this story.

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