Downtown Milwaukee continues to grow -- and new streets, bikes lanes, the Bublr bike, trolleys, taxis, Uber, Lyft and other components have made it easier to get around -- but is still without the sort of modern transportation system that connects neighborhoods in other vibrant cities.
That could change with a new plan to move the Milwaukee Streetcar project forward. Using non-property tax funding, the new plan unveiled by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett late Tuesday, adds a Lakefront stop to the previously announced streetcar route and covers the potential costs of utility relocation.
The extension -- initially unveiled in September -- would connect The Couture proposed development at the site of the Downtown Transit Center on Lincoln Memorial Drive, between Michigan and Clybourn Streets.
The plan, which relies on existing allocated federal funding and tax incremental financing funds generated by all of the new development near the route, will enable streetcar operation to begin by 2018, officials estimate.
"Milwaukee residents and businesses have demanded a transportation alternative to spur development and provide more options, something most other cities our size are building or already operating," Mayor Tom Barrett said.
"This starter system will -- with future additions to other neighborhoods being planned -- provide a modern, attractive way to get around Milwaukee, to and from residences, businesses, cultural institutions and entertainment destinations."
The new plan, which requires Common Council approval, will use $54.9 million in federal funds already approved and $59 million from tax incremental financing.
Barrett cited the $2.6 billion in completed Downtown development from 2005 to 2014, the $980 million currently under construction and the nearly $1.3 billion in proposed Downtown investment as a strong sign that greater Milwaukee is finally ready for a connector streetcar starter system.
Barry Mandel, president of Mandel Group, a major developer and passionate advocate of Milwaukee, said the decision to move forward was welcomed by area developers, employers and residents.
"The timing for the streetcar is perfect on so many levels," Mandel said. "With significant new development including housing coming on line, the streetcar will be a huge benefit to residents, employees and visitors. As in other progressive cities that have leaped into the 21st century, the streetcar will attract significant new investment near the route and help bring new development and jobs into Downtown, Milwaukee neighborhoods and, eventually, the region."
Ald. Nik Kovac said the route was a starter system that would reach out to neighborhoods over time. "The streetcar will create a vital new transportation option for Milwaukee neighborhoods, and improve access for residents and workers around the city," Kovac said.
Barrett said work on the project had been temporarily slowed due to state actions that drove up city costs with an unprecedented requirement that the city pay for private utility relocations. While the city filed a court appeal of the state action Monday and hopes to reverse the requirement, the new plan allows the city to fund the utility relocations if necessary.
"We’ve worked hard with the utilities to reduce the costs and will continue to drive them lower," Barrett said. "We want the cost to be as low as possible no matter who ultimately pays for the relocations. We are committed to the project and prepared to go forward regardless of whom the courts determine should pay for moving private utility facilities."
UPDATE: The plan is not without opposition, however.
Eighth District Alderman Robert Donovan wrote a letter to Rep. Dale Kooyenga on Wednesday expressing concerns over the idea of using multiple Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts to pay for the street car, as well as the immediacy of implementing this plan after a long delay.
"I would therefore ask that you take whatever steps you deem appropriate to forbid the use of Tax Incremental Financing for this purpose," wrote Donovan.