Drunk on the Bus

Photo by James Gutierrez

Three 19-year-old girls — Maddie, Rachel and Claire — hopped on the Milwaukee County Transit System’s Green Line bus to transport themselves, and their alcohol, to Summerfest.

“I’ve drank on the Green Line every day,” Maddie says. “It’s never hard to get alcohol.”

The Green Line is a Milwaukee County bus that shuttles people from the Bayshore Town Center through Whitefish Bay and Shorewood and on to the Summerfest grounds. In the back of the bus, there is a sign that says, “Notice: This bus is equipped with audio and video surveillance.” This warning has little effect on the rowdy riders.

Also on the bus is a 17 year old from Shorewood named Emma. While she swigs her Smirnoff Vodka, Maddie and Rachel are passing Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum back and forth, cheering each other on like fraternity boys. Maddie, who will be a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall, calls out Rachel to take a shot of rum, which is disguised in an Ice Mountain water bottle. She tells her friend it’s 100-proof.

“What’s that mean?” asks Rachel. “It means it will get you more messed up than Patron!” Maddie says.

Rachel chugs the beige spirit, grimaces and then quickly takes a chug of the canned diet cola she is holding in her other hand. She chugs again.

Jackie Janz, spokeswoman for MCTS, said she did not know teenagers were drinking on the Green Line. Policy dictates that if bus drivers see any eating or drinking on the bus they should report it to dispatch immediately. One way MCTS is addressing the problem is with the “Stop Announcement System” which should be on all buses by the end of this year.

“It is an electronic sign that will repeat some of our messages in audible,” Janz said. “The operators can always call for security, route supervisors, or if someone is doing something illegal, they can call law enforcement.”

The Milwaukee County Transit website describes the bus as a peaceful mode of transportation. However, when it comes to Summerfest time, the Green Line ride is anything but relaxing.

“This is very disrespectful,” Jessie Weathersby said. “This is not a school bus; this is public transportation.”

Weathersby is a 66-year-old who lives on Milwaukee’s East Side. She uses the bus a couple times a week to get downtown or to the library.

UWM student Jennifer Marquardt rides the Green Line on a regular basis. The 23 year old is a nursing student at St. Luke’s Hospital. She says there are usually just a few riders on the bus after her 12-hour shift. July 5 was a different experience for her, as she watched drunken partygoers leaving Summerfest.

“I’ve never seen anybody drunk on the bus before,” Marquardt said. “There are definitely too many people.”

With the large number of passengers on the buses, it is nearly impossible for the drivers to monitor what happens, especially toward the back. So, how full is too full?

“It’s really the operator’s call,” Janz said. “On our regular buses we have 39 seated seats and then there could be another 20 people that could be standing in the aisle behind the yellow line. But it’s really up to the operators what is safe capacity.”

Thirty-five-year-old bus driver Rhonda White has been with MCTS for nearly nine years, and says she has met a lot of appreciative people in that time. While she wouldn’t acknowledge underage drinking happening on the bus, she did describe her Summerfest passengers as being “a little bit more energetic.”

On the evening of July 5, the back of the bus resembled a bar at closing time as spilled alcohol and empty cans and bottles littered the floor.

That night a 21-year-old UWM student named Paris snuck slushy drinks spiked with alcohol onto the bus for a group of friends.

“I like to ride because I’m not drinking and driving,” he said. “I can meet up with my homies and I meet interesting people.”

Eighteen-year-old Alec from Glendale says he rides and drinks on the Green Line whenever he goes to Summerfest. He said he doesn’t see a problem with drinking on the bus.

“It’s a little crazy, but all good fun,” he said. “I don’t drive; I don’t have my license anymore, and (the Green Line) is somewhat convenient. I got an OWI when I was 16, and I have not thought about it since.”

Eighteen-year-old Sam from Shorewood is beginning his college career this fall at UWM. The ride to Summerfest is convenient for him, because the Green Line goes right past his house. He said he has noticed open containers on the bus.

“It beats driving,” he said. “You don’t have to pay for gas, it’s safer, and you can get real drunk.”

Twenty-two-year-old Joe from Whitefish Bay brought a whiskey cocktail on the bus in a plastic cup. One of his friends appeared to throw up after getting off.

While Janz said she was unaware of the drinking problem on the bus, she said that drivers are limited in what they can do. She said that MCTS is not responsible for individuals breaking other laws on the bus, and that dispatch is trained to call the police.

“If something is being hidden, that’s not up to the operator to take care of,” Janz said. “(We’ve) had funding cuts for the last 11 years. We’re doing everything imaginable to cut costs, keep as much service out there, and to answer to the community.”