Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up
The Milwaukee circulator streetcar is moving forward, but there is still confusion in the mind of many. We’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.
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).
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.
More details on the origin of the money, and past issues is available in an article on Milwaukee transit politics.
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. An example image from Portland is included below.
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.
More discussion on this issue can be found in a previous article on transit technologies.
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.
Winning Route of the Urban Milwaukee Streetcar Contest
We held a contest seeking out the best possible three-mile streetcar route, and a clear winner emerged. We’ve included that route below as the Mayor’s route isn’t final until there are rails in the ground.
View Transit Idea A in a larger map
More about the Milwaukee Streetcar
For more information on project details, how the operator will be selected, what the vehicles will be like, and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.
- Milwaukee Streetcar Construction on Target to Meet Residential Preference Program, DBE Goals - City of Milwaukee Dept. of Public Works - Jul 21st, 2017
- Friday Photos: Streetcar Tracks Getting Road Tested - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 30th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: $30 Million Spent on Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - May 19th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Track Getting Installed - Jeramey Jannene - May 12th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: County Gets Waiver on Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 17th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Rails Being Welded - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 7th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: City Won’t Delay Streetcar for County - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 28th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: County Board Okays Bid for Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 23rd, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Track Steel Has Arrived - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 16th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Should County Operate Streetcar? - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 8th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Track Construction Starts in April - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 17th, 2017
- Streetsblog: 80 Transit Projects in 2017 - Angie Schmitt - Feb 6th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: The Milwaukee Streetcar is Hiring - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 20th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Project Receives Federal Grant - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 12th, 2016
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Cincinnati Streetcar Opens - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 19th, 2016
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Okays Streetcar to Bucks Arena - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 6th, 2016
- Eyes on Milwaukee: $6.5 Million in Streetcar Savings - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 26th, 2016
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Donovan Lies About Streetcar Suit - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 15th, 2016
- Eyes on Milwaukee: BID Sells Streetcar-Related Development - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 15th, 2016
- Murphy’s Law: Do Millennials Oppose the Streetcar? - Bruce Murphy - Dec 15th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Pennsylvania Company Wins Streetcar Contract - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 13th, 2015
- Plenty of Horne: City Accepts $14 Million Federal Streetcar Grant - Michael Horne - Oct 29th, 2015
- Back in the News: Anti-Streetcar Petition Dies - Bruce Murphy - Aug 28th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Scott Walker Aids Milwaukee Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 13th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Construction Starts in October - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 10th, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: The Strange Politics of Anti-Streetcar-ites - Bruce Murphy - Jun 18th, 2015
- Plenty of Horne: Bucks Plan Envisions Arena Streetcar - Michael Horne - Apr 8th, 2015
- A Short History of Milwaukee’s Old Streetcar System - Ken Smith - Mar 31st, 2015
- Plenty of Horne: Davis Sets, Cancels Meeting on Streetcar - Michael Horne - Mar 17th, 2015
- Back in the News: Anti-Streetcar Petition Drive Fails - Bruce Murphy - Mar 5th, 2015
- Friday Photos: Streetcar Signing Is Quite a Celebration - Michael Horne - Feb 13th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Milwaukee Streetcar Approved - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 10th, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: Who is “Lobbying” For the Streetcar? - Bruce Murphy - Feb 5th, 2015
- Data Wonk: Will Streetcar Help The Inner City? - Bruce Thompson - Feb 4th, 2015
- Back in the News: City Attorney Says Streetcar Petitions Might be Moot - Bruce Murphy - Jan 30th, 2015
- Data Wonk: Millennials And The Streetcar - Bruce Thompson - Jan 27th, 2015
- Op-Ed: Why I Support the Streetcar - Russell Rossetto - Jan 26th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Responses Shows Wide Support - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 22nd, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Approved, but Held - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 21st, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: Koch-Funded Group Backs Anti-Streetcar Drive - Bruce Murphy - Jan 20th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Backers Say They Have the Votes - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 20th, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: Who Is Funding the Anti-Streetcar Effort? - Bruce Murphy - Jan 20th, 2015
- Op Ed: Why the Streetcar Won’t Work - Samuel Jensen - Jan 14th, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: Will Anti-Streetcar Referendum Succeed? - Bruce Murphy - Jan 9th, 2015
- The Story Behind the Streetcar Referendum - Michael Horne and Bruce Murphy - Jan 8th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Delays Streetcar Until January - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 16th, 2014
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Committee Takes No Action on Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 10th, 2014
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Committee Approves Milwaukee Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 9th, 2014
- Plenty of Horne: RACM Approves Tax Funding for Streetcar - Michael Horne - Dec 2nd, 2014
- Plenty of Horne: How to Sell the Streetcar - Michael Horne - Nov 28th, 2014
- Plenty of Horne: Next Stops For The Streetcar - Michael Horne - Nov 24th, 2014
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Barrett Moving Forward With Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 18th, 2014
- Plenty of Horne: Who Will Be Streetcar Operator? - Michael Horne - May 8th, 2014
- Back in the News: A Streetcar Named Cooperation? - Dave Reid - Apr 27th, 2014
- Streetsblog: How a Streetcar Spurs Development - Angie Schmitt - Nov 3rd, 2013
- Plenty of Horne: Streetcar Social - Michael Horne - Sep 12th, 2013
- Republicans Move to Kill Milwaukee Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - May 9th, 2013
- Plenty of Horne: Mayor Says Streetcar is “Trojan Horse” - Michael Horne - Apr 17th, 2013
- Streetcar Meeting on Tuesday - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 29th, 2012
- Donovan’s New Anti-Streetcar Allies - Jeramey Jannene - Aug 16th, 2012
- Battle of the Bobs: Donovan vs Bauman Streetcar Press Conference - Jeramey Jannene - May 18th, 2012
- Milwaukee Streetcar Hearing at Frontier Airlines Center - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 15th, 2011
- Important Hoan Bridge and Milwaukee Streetcar Meetings this Week - Dave Reid - Nov 14th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Passes Common Council, Proceeds to Final Engineering - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 26th, 2011
- Alderman Donovan Proposes Delaying the Streetcar Project - Dave Reid - Jul 19th, 2011
- Barrett says Streetcar is an investment in growing Milwaukee - Patti Wenzel - Jul 13th, 2011
- Keep the Milwaukee Streetcar Moving Forward - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 8th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar at Apex - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 16th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Takes Key Step Forward - Jeramey Jannene - May 6th, 2010
- Streetcars and Trams Around the World - Dave Reid - Feb 1st, 2010
- Milwaukee Streetcar Meeting This Thursday - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 5th, 2009
- Downtown Streetcar Open House - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 23rd, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Routes Unveiled by Mayor Barrett - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 21st, 2009
- Common Council Creates Streetcar Committee - Dave Reid - Jun 18th, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 19th, 2009
- Vote For Your Favorite Milwaukee Streetcar Route - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 25th, 2009
- Design Your Own Streetcar Route - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 23rd, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Map - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 21st, 2009
- Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee - Dave Reid - Mar 14th, 2009
- Palomar or Streetcar? - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 22nd, 2009