» Twenty years after first receiving a federal appropriation to construct a rail transit system, Wisconsin’s biggest city may finally move forward.
Today, after decades of conflict over the future of transit for the City of Milwaukee, a public transportation study committee will vote on whether to advance plans for a two-mile streetcar project, bringing Wisconsin closer to its first modern streetcar system than ever before.
Congress awarded the city $289 million in 1991 to promote a new transit system for this city of 600,000 people, but thanks to infighting between local officials over whether to invest in rail or bus services, none of the money was spent on construction, and the federal aid was reduced to $91.5 million in 1999. And yet disagreements between Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett continued, making any kind of progress impossible.
That’s why Congress stepped in last March, determining that the city would be allowed to spend 60% of its appropriation on rail and 40% on bus rapid transit, forcing the conflicting leaders into compromise. Thus the city established a local transit study group called Milwaukee Connector to consider what routes would be most appropriate for serving the city’s downtown. Today, that committee will get the first word on the recommended alignment and vote on its future implementation.
The two-mile initial route would cost $64.6 million — $9.7 million of which would come from locally sourced tax-increment financing and the rest from the federal aid — and extend from the newly renovated Milwaukee Intermodal Center to the Lower East Side neighborhood, via the downtown business district and City Hall. If the city receives an additional $25 million inner-city circulator grant from the federal Department of Transportation, the route could be extended to 3.6 miles, northeast along the Lake Michigan waterfront and northwest along the west side of the Milwaukee River. That grant, for which the city applied earlier this spring, could be released this summer.
The first phase is expected to attract 3,800 riders a day by 2015 and provide service every ten to fifteen minutes.
Future extensions could continue in all directions from downtown, with the city setting its sights particularly on a route that would head north to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. There are no obvious sources of funds for those extensions, which are not likely to be planned until construction has been completed on the first phase of the project.
Though the Milwaukee Connector group has the primary decision-making power on this project, it may also have to be approved by other local, state, and federal officials if construction is to begin as planned by next year. Daily operations could commence by 2013, coinciding with the planned opening of intercity rail services to the state capital in Madison. Talgo, the Spanish train manufacturer, plans to build trains in a factory in Milwaukee.
If the Madison-Milwaukee line and improved Milwaukee-Chicago services attract an increasing patronage, the streetcar system could play an important role in distributing passengers through downtown once they’ve arrived. The decision to extend the rail system’s routes from the Intermodal Station was a sound one.
The city has set itself a pretty strong foundation for future system growth with a well-routed initial streetcar corridor that would reach most of the downtown’s major destinations. That said, the first phase of the route will be too short to make a major dent in the commuting patterns of many of Milwaukee’s inhabitants; trains arriving every ten minutes along such a short route will have a hard time competing with pedestrians. Future lines into the relatively dense residential zones surrounding the center city on three sides may prove more productive in doing so.
Nevertheless, the fact that the city has been able to cobble together a proposal that meets the funding guidelines established by the existing federal appropriation suggests that Milwaukee is almost guaranteed to get streetcars within the next few years — quite an achievement for a city that has dragged its feet for decades.
Image above: Milwaukee Streetcar recommended alignment, from Milwaukee Connector