Milwaukee Streetcar

Milwaukee Officials Advancing Streetcar Project with Goal of Attracting More Federal Funds

» 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

20 replies on “Milwaukee Officials Advancing Streetcar Project with Goal of Attracting More Federal Funds”

Great news for Milwaukee! It seems like a pretty low price tag for a streetcar project. Is it because it’s so short? Is the cost-per-mile competitive with the likes of Portland?

True, Milwaukee needs better transport; but, you make no reference to the streetcar loop in Kenosha which connects to the Metra station. While it runs PCC cars, the track is recent. So… not modern due to rolling stock?

You’re right that I didn’t mention it — I wouldn’t personally consider it a “modern” system because of the use of the non-modern rolling stock. Nonetheless, I take your point.

I’m glad to see streetcars returning to Milwakee maybe they could run modern streetcars with a mix of old fashion 1930’s streetcars to make the system more fun.

I do have serious doubts about the mixing of modern and historic rolling stock. The audience addressed is completely different. Either create a dedicated line for the historic rolling stock, or concentrate the historic rolling stock operation to certain hours (and then make it “something special”, with a “special experience”). If mixed operation, then it should only happen for a specific event, such as a town fair.

My hometown has a quite active streetcar museum, and they operate once per month as their own line. This proves to be quite successful (and is about what can be done with the historically very valuable vehicles, some of them dating back to the 19th century).

The historic type and shapped streetcars could run on the weekends or sunday when most of the bussiness travelers are gone. The modern ones would be forall the bussiness and working people going back and forth to downtown.

It would make a intersting exparement to see how many people get on eatch type of streetcar though. But the historic ones would make a good weekend event after all this modern streetcar system could be running on the old rail beds of the old one.

I am completely opposed to running historic equipment on current lines. The old cars in fact are obsolete. It does not help to showcase the possibilities of modern rail to remind people, especially visitors on an evening or a weekend, why they quit riding the old stuff

I want to ride sleek new European-style streetcars designed for air conditioning, not retrofitted. I want to look out of great big windows. I want to use wide doors for easy entry and exit. MOST OF ALL, I want to get on low-floor streetcars that do not require anyone — my niece with her baby carriage, my sister with her bad ankles, my uncle with his walker, my aunt with her wheelchair, myself with a touch of arthritis, or anybody with an impediment in line in front of me — to have to climb even one damn step to get on the vehicle.

If you run historic equipment alternating with modern equipment, on a line that will be served every 10 or 15 minutes, you are telling me to wait 20 minutes to half an hour to get a low-floor car because the old stuff is nostalgic or cute. No. Hell no.

Take your historic equipment out to the museum track. I will not demand that the museum run alternate trains of modern equipment on that track. There is a time and place for everything. The time for the historic equipment is passed, and the place for it today is in museums and theme parks, like the St Charles line in New Orleans, not in the downtowns of cities like Milwaukee.

@Woody –

I agree with most of your post except part of “museum track”. PCC’s performance is on par with most of modern tram types, so you can run vintage rolling stock between regularly scheduled runs on general network.

Apart from the crucial low-floor issue, the PCCs are actually better designs than many of the modern streetcars. :( It was a *good* design. A few updates to use solid-state hardware, and there you go.

I wouldn’t recommend running any of the other historic streetcar types — pre-PCC designs tend to have some seriously unattractive features.

I suspect that a “Low Floor PCC” design would be incredibly popular, like the “New Routemaster” for London will be.

While modern low floor equipment will provide the bulk of the service, the streetcar line will be designed to accommodate historic equipment. At least two original Milwaukee Streetcars still exist and they are both located within the State of Wisconsin.

The bulk of the service would be modern and most of the time people would see it such as if there are 20 streetcars on the line and say two or three of them are the old fashioned ones or even a retro vesion of a old streetcar but with better heating and cooling systems along with seats in it. The people that would want to see and ride them would go look for them while the people who don’t want to ride them could have the other 17 modern streetcars. Even if the old streetcars only ran on the weekends that would be good mixed in with the other modern streetcars. A old streetcar puts the soul back into a rebuilt streetcar system.

There used to be some grade separated streetcar lines in Milwaukee – do these ROW still exist?

I’m skeptical about how useful such a short line, running only every 10-15 minutes, would be. The end-to-end distance of the phase 1 shown in this plan is less than 2 miles, so (with waiting time) the streetcar would only be marginally faster than walking. This segment ought to be part of a larger citywide network and be run using accessible modern equipment only, otherwise this is a waste of money.

It’s just a starter line. It would be an excellent starter line, however: consider the people coming to Milwaukee from Chicago by train. Probably a majority of them would use this line.

I noice on this map that the streetcar lines really don’t go past Interstate 43 and past Interstate 94. I remember hearing a story that there was an abondoned Interurban streetcar line that linked up with places 20 miles south of this city. Maybe this new streetcar system could start moving towards getting towards the Interurban lines or at least move into other sections of the city on the other sides of the interstate.

This routing will make a good starter line for Milwaukee. They do need extensions, especially to UWM, but mostly they need to start turning dirt. It’s a significant improvement over some of the earlier concepts. Milwaukee has a chance to be a very livable city. Having lived in Wisconsin for many years I know that it is a place that could be very attractive to gen-Y “creatives” but the politicians are too often afraid to take any risks or do anything bold in order to reap the potential of the place. Suburban interests have really crippled any progress with a selfish isolationist mindset for about 4 decades now. This is an encouraging change for Milwaukee itself, regardless of what the burbs may do or not do. Along with HSR, it might get people thinking about a broader vision for alternative mobility and stronger urban cores in the midwest.

Some of the those old streetcar lines on that website would be really good for new light rail lines or extended streetcars going out of the city core.

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