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The Milwaukee circulator streetcar's history

The Milwaukee circulator streetcar is moving forward, but there is still confusion in the mind of many. I've covered the issue in the past, but this article attempts to bring everything together in one place, the history, the frequently asked questions, and the proposed route.

Timeline

1991 - Milwaukee awarded $289 million for the construction of a dedicated-bus lane in the East-West Freeway corridor (Interstate 94 from Downtown to Waukesha). When the plan was canceled, the federal government took back $48 million.

1998 - Jim Rowen at The Political Environment has the best summary...

Then Gov. Tommy Thompson prevailed on Rep. Tom Petri (R) to allow Thompson to direct the transit funds to other transportation projects, including freeways, because Thompson wanted the money for the Marquette Interchange reconstruction. Intervention by then-Rep. Tom Barrett (D), and Sen. Herb Kohl, (D), prevented that outcome - - and I don't recall then State Rep. Scott Walker, (R), piping up and complaining that would mean less money for Milwaukee County buses someday.

1999 - A deal between County Executive Tom Ament, Mayor John Norquist, and Governor Tommy Thompson and approved by the federal government diverts $149.5 million to a series projects that include the construction of the new Marquette Interchange, the 6th Street Viaduct, and Canal Street. The fund (which does not gain interest) is left with $91.5 million designed for capital costs of a downtown circulator starter system. To access the remaining funds, approval is needed from the Milwaukee Mayor, the Milwaukee County Executive, the President of the MMAC, and the CEO of the Wisconsin Center District (WCD).

2006 - The Milwaukee Common Council approves an electric-guided bus plan, backed by the MMAC and WCD, intending to move it into preliminary engineering. Mayor Tom Barrett vetos the $300 million proposal, the majority of the Common Council reverses their previous position and upholds the veto. Plan killed. Credit the Common Council for trying to do something on the issue, but the system was seriously flawed and I think that was realized at the end of the day.

2007-2008 - Tom Barrett and Scott Walker each pushed the issue of the $91.5 much more publicly. Barrett unveiled a plan that included a downtown streetcar loop and two express bus lines, and talked of reconfiguring existing bus service to work with new, express service. Walker unveiled an express bus plan scant on details, but complete with attacks on the Mayor's plan. It appeared he had the intention to simply cut all standard bus service in the areas to be served by express buses. Both, being career politicians, cleverly avoided any mention of the money needed to operate such a system after building it.

September 9th, 2008 - Tom Barrett and Scott Walker debate the merits of their respective proposals at a forum at Marquette moderated by Mike Gousha. Barrett offers to split the $91.5 million 50/50 in person to Walker (an idea he had been proposing for weeks if not months prior), Walker refuses.

March 2009 - Senator Herb Kohl and Representative David Obey include an earmark provision in the bill that became the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 that divided the $91.5 million between the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. Milwaukee County received 40% ($36.6 million), with the City of Milwaukee receiving 60% ($54.9 million). Barrett and Walker are each now free to pursue using their respective allocated funds to build a new mode of transit service in Milwaukee.

FAQ

Is the streetcar proposal part of the proposed Regional Transit Authority (RTA)?

No, but in the future it could become part of the RTA. At this time no serious discussions have taken place between the City of Milwaukee and appointed-members of the RTA (outside of of course the Mayor's appointee Sharon Robinson). The RTA is currently being debated in the Wisconsin State Senate and State Assembly after being included in the Governor's budget proposal. It would allow the counties of Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee to enact a sales tax up to 0.5% to fund transit services (key aspect: it would not enact the sales tax as further action would be needed locally in each county).

Does that streetcar affect the current transit funding crisis?

No, the $91.5 million is not available for operating costs of MCTS. Nor, despite what Scott Walker advocates, does the implementation of a streetcar compete for funding against the existing transit system. The key to fixing the existing transit funding crisis is to obtain dedicated funding. Currently property tax dollars from the general fund of Milwaukee County are used. These are supplemented by dollars from the state. When this is not enough (as it not been numerous years in a row) federal dollars designated for capital expenses (new buses) have been used for operating expenses. This problem has been looming for years, and has been postponed with service cuts and fare hikes.

Does the streetcar stand a better chance of being built with the RTA in place?

Yes. The RTA would provide a dedicated funding source for transit in Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee counties. It could also serve as the operator of multiple services in place of MCTS and other existing services, this included the KRM commuter rail line and potentially the streetcar. The streetcar proposal currently has the majority of the funding needed for construction (capital costs), but not for the operating budget. The RTA is a logical fit for operation of the streetcar, especially since the proposed route would sync with the RTA-proposed KRM commuter rail line at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. The RTA is likewise a good choice for the operator of the region's bus transit services as centralized branding, route planning, and uniform ticketing will lead to the attractive and cost-effective intermodal transit system.

Where would the streetcar run?

On steel rails embedded in the road in the same lane as traffic runs on. The rails would not damage cars or cause a bumpy driving experience. Unfortunately for road bikers, narrow tires may get stuck in the space between the rail and the road, but there isn't a shortage of streets in downtown Milwaukee that bikers can utilize. Portland, perhaps the most bike friendly city in America, has avoided this problem by dedicating space for bike lanes or having bike lanes intersect streetcar tracks perpendicularly. The streetcar would also have signal priority, so it won't get stuck at stop lights.

Would the streetcar eliminate street parking where it runs?

Rarely. Depending on the configuration of the street and the location of the stops minimal parking would be lost. Using the same space for stops as the existing buses do would save stalls (and make logical transferring points) will reduce the need to eliminate parking. Additionally, using streets that don't have much street parking on them to start (such as Van Buren Street south of Juneau) will make the loss of parking minimal. An example image of how a streetcar stop may function is included below, remember that the spot is already "unparkable" as it is a bus stop.

What's the difference between a streetcar system and a light rail system?

There is a three-fold difference between streetcars and light rail. The first is the intended users, streetcars work within a handful of densely populated neighborhoods circulating people (light rail connects location at least a couple miles apart (Downtown to the airport, UWM, or Miller Park, with maybe one stop inbetween each). The second difference is the type of track such a system would need, to go longer distances a light rail system a dedicated right-of-way is needed where no other vehicles can run. Longer travel distances also yields itself to bigger and longer trains, bigger trains mean bigger stations. Streetcars, as their name, indicates run in the street, with traffic and are much shorter (and smaller) than light rail vehicles. The third difference is the cost. Light rail costs more, at least $10 million more per mile, Tucson, AZ estimates light rail would cost $30 million more per mile than a streetcar (numbers will vary based on size of system, need for land acquisition, and road configuration). At the end of the day it's an apples-to-oranges comparison though as they serve different purposes.

Why not a bus instead of a streetcar?

Quality of the ride, and the chance of sparking investment. Riding on steel rails provides a very smooth ride, on top of having curb bump-outs at stops so there isn't weaving in and out of traffic, and signal priority to avoid waiting at stop lights. Second, investing in the steel rails in the ground has a great chance of sparking development nearby as has been shown in numerous other cities where modern streetcar systems have been built. It's a show of confidence that a bus can't deliver. There is also an unfortunate reality that there is a stigma attached to standard bus service, and that people will ride the streetcar that would rarely, if ever, ride a standard bus.

No one would ride the streetcar

False. The 78,000 or so people that work downtown along with the 15,000 that live downtown are likely riders. That's before entertainment is considered, to which the streetcar would enable people to avoid paying for parking next to the Bradley Center or other venues and park in other areas of downtown. It would be a boost to downtown businesses, as it would encourage people to move about the area after parking. Current MCTS riders would also have their ability to move about the downtown extended, which might allow some to take a bus downtown and the streetcar to their ultimate destination (or save someone currently taking a long walk). Riders of the future KRM commuter rail line will be able to get off at the station and ride the streetcar to their ultimate destination. The last and final obvious group of potential riders is tourists, who stay at all the various hotels around downtown or drive into downtown to the convention center and currently don't go elsewhere in the city.

Why Only 3 Miles In Length?

Money, money and politics. The federal money was donated to create a starter system. At a cost between $18-$30 million per mile, three miles would keep the cost below $100 million and provide a starter system with obvious routes to UWM, the west, and the airport as potential future extensions.

Looking at various routes, also yields the reality that three miles is about as short as one can go before the system doesn't connect anything. It won't be easy for the city to obtain the remaining money to build the system, but it won't be impossible either. To put it in perspective, the final cost of Miller Park is four times that of the streetcar proposal. Still, it's a lot to swallow politically, so as Barrett says "it's the goldie locks plans, not too big, not too small, just right." If you disagree, run for Mayor or County Executive, just don't be surprised when you get laughed out of the room.

Who is going to pay for the rest of the capital costs?

The portion the city received for the streetcar from the $91.5 million was $54.9 million, which is a significant amount, but not enough to cover the costs of Tom Barrett's proposal. That leaves options to fund the remainder. The likely funding option is that the city bonds the money to build it, and it is paid back through the general property tax fund.

Another possiblity is that a benefactor or two could fund the system. Michael Cudahy has been an outspoken advocate of a streetcar system, flying Walker and Barrett around the country (and to Ireland) to look at different systems. He had mentioned funding the capital costs for his own route, so there is an outside chance Barrett could convince him to fund some portion of the ultimate route.

Using the RTA's potential bonding ability (as derived from its sales tax collections) is extremely unlikely, but is technically a possibility.

Theoretically one could also put together a series of tax-incremental financing districts to pay for the capital costs, but that would hamper the city's ability to collect the increased property tax revenue that the line would generate through transit-oriented development.


Talkbacks

WestSideWillie | May 4, 2009 at 1:34 p.m. (report)

Why in the wide, wide, world of sports does the CEO of the Wisconsin Center District have a say so in transportation funds, even circa 1999?

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sconnie8 | May 4, 2009 at 11:48 a.m. (report)

How pathetic of an article and argument. The streetcar MIGHT spur investment and economic development. Who will ride it? Well, a lot of people live in Milwaukee, and a lot of people work there too. Where are the hard facts, real research? And why is there always a dig at republicans and conservatives in articles like this for no other reason than to snipe at them? Why can't sound arguments be made and a case presented without shots at the other political party? It's sad. Milwaukee doesn't have the urban density to support a streetcar or light rail. Buses provide a useful and flexible system for mass transit. Once the rails are in, they aren't gonna move, and millions will have been tied to a 3 mile merry-go-round for adults. What's with the constant rail fascination? Light rail in St. Louis, often used as an example for Milwaukee, is way in the red and and not expanding either. In 20 years they've completed 2 lines. That's it. And they don't charge riders enough to cover costs. Taxpayers get hit with another tax. Just what Milwaukee and Wisconsin needs, another tax to make us even more unattractive to business and professionals. For the cost of this street car, let's buy every adult in Milwaukee a Segway scooter, or the upcoming Segway/GM urban car. It would be a lot cheaper and a lot cooler. If shiny metal objects is what makes the street car so attractive, imagine all the shiny metal Segways roaming around Milwaukee streets. Ooooooh!

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mitchgat | May 1, 2009 at 12:30 p.m. (report)

I am a BIG fan of Milwaukee, specifically downtown and ways to improve it. A lot of fun things to see and do. Easy parking most of the time. I say all that to say this: this project sounds great on paper and it almost makes sense but to me there's one vital, missing component: NEED. Way back I remember learning the difference between a WANT and a NEED. Downtown Milwaukee does not NEED a streetcar system at this time. However, many people, including the author of this well written article seem to think we do. I've lived downtown or near downtown for the last 7 years. I work downtown and have for 12 years. I frequent restaurants and shop in the 3rd Ward often. I don't know if this is a blessing or curse for Milwaukee but the city is EXTREMELY walkable. Even when I didn't live downtown, it was (and still is) extremely easy to park once and walk to where you need to go. I haven't taken public transportation since middle school. I don't say that because it's beneath me. Milwaukee for many years had one of the best public transit systems in the country. I just didn't NEED to. I think $90 million could be spent in much better ways: improving ALL the really horrible streets downtown and the surrounding areas, beautify Kilbourn in front of the Hyatt, or how about scrapping all the hotel, retail plans for the Park East land, east of the river and building a huge, elevated park (similar to O'Donnel Park) with parking underneath. I personally am embarrassed to see that eyesore on that land that was "ripe for quick development." Yes, I know those ideas sound way out there but sorry, these are things that would be useable by more Milwaukeean's than those who would want or NEED to use a streetcar. Once we have more destination type things downtown, then I could see the NEED for a streetcar system. Until then a taxi, the bus, a trolley (in summer) or good old fashioned walking is all that's needed to get around Milwaukee's downtown. Now if this was light rail to Brookfield, Tosa and other surrounding suburbs, I'd say this would be money well spent. I got to those places often and would like if there was a way to get there without having to drive. But 3 miles, for streetcars, is a waste of good money. And although we need to start somewhere, I just don't think is the right time for this project.

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pfan | April 30, 2009 at 10:36 a.m. (report)

Nice summary of a very important project for the city. And of course, always hilarious to read the naysayers rantings. It's like AM talk radio converted to text: shallow and incredibly uninformed.

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mrsb | April 30, 2009 at 10:22 a.m. (report)

I would never ride it either. It's just not functional for people with families/babies. Agreed, waste of money.

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