Edgar Mendez

Impact of Bus Rapid Transit in Milwaukee

$48 million high-speed bus line projected to carry 10,000 riders daily by 2035.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Jun 14th, 2017 12:54 pm
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Conceptual rendering of the BRT line at the Wisconsin Avenue and Hawley Road intersection. Image courtesy of Milwaukee County Transit System.

Conceptual rendering of the BRT line at the Wisconsin Avenue and Hawley Road intersection. Image courtesy of Milwaukee County Transit System.

Milwaukee County Transit System officials sought feedback from residents who attended two open houses last week regarding the ambitious East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, a proposed 9-mile high-speed bus line that would run along Wisconsin Avenue downtown to Hawley Road, then turn onto Bluemound Road before ending up at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

Developers estimate that the 12 new 40-foot-long 75-person-capacity BRT buses would eventually increase ridership in the corridor by 31 percent, and average 10,000 riders daily by 2035. The line would remove thousands of cars from the road, ease congestion caused by the reconstruction of I-94 and spur millions in economic development, according to Brendan Conway, spokesman for MCTS.

The transportation system, which Conway described as the spine of MCTS, will consist of new buses, dedicated lanes and other amenities. It is estimated to cost between $42 million and $48 million, with 80 percent covered by funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program.

Pepper Ray (right), who attended an open house for the East-West Bus Rapid Transit line recently, said she’s skeptical of the plan’s impact on central city residents. Photo by Edgar Mendez.

Pepper Ray (right), who attended an open house for the East-West Bus Rapid Transit line recently, said she’s skeptical of the plan’s impact on central city residents. Photo by Edgar Mendez.

The annual cost for the bus system, which will run every 10 minutes, has been estimated at $3.7 million, which would be freed up by cutting from and diverting other routes that would no longer run on Wisconsin Avenue, Conway said. Only the 30 and 30X routes would continue to run on Wisconsin Avenue if the BRT plan is implemented, he added. According to a 2015 Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission survey, 85 percent of residents support an expanded rapid transit system and 86 percent said it’s very important to reach jobs by public transit.

During the open houses, officials from development companies AECOM and HNTB were on hand to walk residents through the proposal options. Residents were asked to provide feedback on the proposed BRT lane configurations, station locations and designs, safety, traffic and parking considerations, among other issues.

Pepper Ray, who attended the open house at Marquette University High School, 3401 W. Wisconsin Ave., said she saw many positives in the plan, including the high-speed aspect, but is skeptical about other parts.

“It seems like it could be another one of those plans that helps people who are well off more than it does others in the community,” said Ray, Amani Building Neighborhood Capacity Program coordinator at the Dominican Center for Women.

A North Side resident who goes by the name Mz. Rose said she is concerned that funding the new route would result in current routes being eliminated or cut.  “What about people traveling north and south on the bus? You can’t tell me they won’t be affected,” Rose said.

Ald. Michael Murphy, who represents the 10th District neighborhood where Marquette High School is located, said feedback from his constituency has been mixed. For example, business owners who don’t have parking lots and rely on street parking are concerned that the dedicated lanes would leave no parking for customers.

“I’m very concerned about the impact of the dedicated lanes to the local businesses on Bluemound corridor,” said Murphy. He added that he’s looking forward to seeing more data on the impact of the project on businesses and on the projected migration of people from cars to BRT lines.

Nick DeMarsh of the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union said business owners need to realize that the BRT line will be bringing in thousands of potentials customers each day.  DeMarsh said the riders union has been pushing for a project such as the BRT for years, adding that Milwaukee is one of only a few cities its size that doesn’t have a BRT, rail line or something similar. He described it as a more viable alternative to freeway expansion.

Asked whether the BRT and the new streetcar, which will initially run downtown, connecting the intermodal station, the Third Ward and East Town, could result in more mass transit supply than demand, DeMarsh said he believes that both systems can work well together.

“They both have their strengths: the BRT for longer rides with less stops and the streetcar for shorter distances,” DeMarsh said.

MCTS officials are anticipating that construction on the BRT lines will begin in 2019, with startup tests and service beginning between 2020-2021. Ray said she’ll be taking a “wait and see” approach until then.

“It seems like another one of those ‘if you build it they will come,’ kind of projects, so we’ll see how it goes,” Ray said.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

11 thoughts on “Impact of Bus Rapid Transit in Milwaukee”

  1. Q says:

    Is there a reason the median can’t be eliminated on that section of Wisconsin Ave? To do this right, the lanes should be in the center and that median eliminated.

  2. Jim H. says:

    I wish that articles about the BRT would actually describe the proposals presented at the two recent meetings. The first proposal eliminates all street parking along the route to provide for an exclusive bus lane and two lanes of auto traffic in each direction. The second proposal provides for street parking but only one lane of auto traffic. In either case there is only one lane of auto traffic over the Wisconsin Avenue viaduct. Either proposal presents problems. The county’s estimates of ridership and development along the route are overly optimistic, but will be used to keep pushing this project.

  3. Joe says:

    Jim, presumably if people are riding this bus that means they aren’t driving, which means less cars on the road and less need for 2 lanes in each direction. Frankly if you’re going more than a few blocks on Wisconsin Ave I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just use I-94, which will continue to exist.

  4. Mary Kay Wagner says:

    Take a look at the BRT system in the Twin Cities. It has actually reduced the need for on street parking in some cases. As for demand, supply can’t keep up. It is far more convenient to take the rail or bus than car.

  5. Amy Donahue says:

    I second Mz. Rose’s concerns about north/south routes across this corridor and understand the importance for debate and questions around a project this big, but am excited about the potential and how it can help people who work, attend, or have appointments at places like the Medical Center and Marquette get there (I’ll admit my personal motivation: right now it takes me over an hour to get to Froedtert by bus from my home in Riverwest; I know there are patients who have much longer trips).

  6. PG1946 says:

    I fail to see how removing existing lines on Wisconsin Avenue in connection with the implementation of the East-West BRT will increase transit capacity in the corridor, especially since the buses to be used on the BRT will not have significantly larger passenger capacity than present buses (I am assuming that the 75 passenger capacity includes standees). The 30 and 30X lines which serve only part of the route (they turn off Wisconsin Avenue at 35th Street) are already heavily used in that part of the corridor, with buses filled with standees at midday. The Gold Line is not mentioned as one of the projected surviving bus lines; that line serves Froedtert, but also serves Western Wauwatosa,Eastern Brookfield, and the Brookfield Square Mall, as well as the Downer Avenue route to UWM–route sections that the BRT line will not replace. All of this seems to add up to either reduced transit passenger loads for the corridor and adjacent stretches,or zero sum transit additions, both contrary to good transit policy. Moreover, Mz Rose’s comment, quoted in the article, that she fears that the implementation of the first BRT route will lead to a reduction in service to the lower income populations living on or near north-south bus routes. Her fear is by no means unfounded, given prior policy and the hostility of the Republican Legislature and our Koch Brothers-funded Governor to government services (and, in the case of the WOW counties, people of color, from whom many of the inhabitants of these counties have fled), especially transit, for Milwaukee County. There is a social.aspect here, and I am afraid that poor Milwaukeeans will, once again, be forced to pay for an amenity that benefits more affluent residents (Yes, yes, I know that many poor people take the bus out to the Medical Center–I see them when I take the bus out there myself–but those people depend on the North-South routes to go to an from their often multiple jobs and to do their errands). I can support Bus Rapid Transit (although we badly need light rail as well), but not if it will result in reduction in service to those most dependent on public transit.

  7. PG1946 says:

    I should add a couple of concerns to those expressed by Jim H. Will this be full Bus Rapid Transit? That is, will there be traffic signal coordination and pre-boarding fare payment? I lived in Boston for many years, and what was advertised as a rapid transit replacement with buses for the elevated metro line that had been moved out of the heavily African-American Roxbury District, was anything but rapid. Traffic signals were not coordinated, fare payment was done on board buses, and many people parked in the poorly-marked–or, rather, barely marked–bus lanes, slowing down the BRT vehicles. While the new articulated buses had a larger capacity than ordinary buses, the ridership, which had previously used the more capacious Orange Line subway-elevated, was so large that many buses were overloaded, and rush-hour transit was a nightmare. Fare boxes were similar to those used on Milwaukee buses, so that paying cash fares was a clumsy and lengthy process. In additions, most stops were spaced two or three blocks apart on a 2,4-mile long route, much shorter than the old elevated line. As a result, the original Washington Street BRT was slow and uncomfortable,much slower than the elevated trains it only partially replaced and no appreciable imporvements on an ordinary bus. Much money was expended on new buses and substantial bus shelters with “real-time” bus scheduling information that often did not work. That money did not get the supposedly intended result. I would hope that the proposed East-West BRT line in Milwaukee will not duplicate the same mistakes.

  8. Mary says:

    I support a strong and improved public transportation system in Milwaukee County, but I do not believe the proposed BRT is the way to proceed. It will be another Downtown Transit Center — a total waste of taxpayer’s money. It is an expensive, unneeded, and unwanted system which purports to shave 10 minutes off the current bus ride between Downtown Milwaukee and the Milwaukee County Grounds and add 10,000 new riders a day. I personally don’t believe it will be successful in meeting either of those figures and you shouldn’t either. As other commentators on this site have indicated, there are a host of negatives associated with this proposed project and the people who will be adversely affected are the current riders and the people who are most in need of a strong public transit system to get to their jobs, educational institutions, and other destinations.

    1. The BRT is too expensive to build and operate. The consultants are saying the federal government will be picking up 80% of the start-up costs ($48 million) and that the additional annual costs will be funded by cutting current routes (example the Gold Line). Given the stated priorities of Congress, is it realistic to plan on the federal government giving Milwaukee County $38,400,000 for the BRT start-up costs? I doubt it. Even if the feds funded 80% of the start-up costs, that still leaves Milwaukee County taxpayers with having to pick up almost $10,000,000 in start-up costs plus the additional BRT annual operating costs, Also, as other routes are cut, overall ridership on the MCTS will fall and overall costs will rise. The MCTS’s finances are already precarious and could be dire if the State Legislature decides to eliminate the ability of Milwaukee County to charge the $60 vehicle registration fee/wheel tax.

    2. It is not needed. There is currently adequate bus service on Wisconsin Avenue with the Gold Line and the 30 lines, and there is much unused capacity. The buses westbound from 35th and Wisconsin are rarely even half full. Expand routes in other parts of Milwaukee County. More bus service is not needed on Wisconsin Avenue but other areas of Milwaukee County could definitely use improved bus service.

    3. Projected time savings and ridership increases are not realistic. Supposedly ten minutes will be shaved off the time it currently takes a rider to make the total trip from Downtown to the Medical College. However, that figure does not take into account the increased time it will take for riders to walk to a BRT stop because there will be many fewer stops. The proposed savings of ten minutes off the time it currently takes for the full trip from Downtown to the Medical College is not a big enough incentive to get large numbers of people to leave their cars and get on the BRT. The increased ridership figures were also projected based on the traffic congestion to be generated by the proposed I 94 reconstruction project from 76th Street to 27th Street and that project is currently on hold. That means MCTS will not benefit from people wanting to leave their cars due to the reconstruction. In addition, if the Gold Line is cut, all of the current Gold Line riders will have a much longer commute to UWM for example because they will have to switch from the BRT to other buses downtown and also will have to walk further to a BRT bus stop. That could result in those riders deciding to quit taking the bus.

    4. One lane of auto traffic on Wisconsin Avenue will result in greatly increased rush hour traffic congestion, more car accidents, and additional safety concerns for Marquette students, other pedestrians and bike riders on Wisconsin Avenue and Bluemound Road. It will also increase auto traffic on other residential streets as car drivers seek alternate east/west routes across the city. Auto drivers do you want your commute time increased while nearly empty BRT buses have a dedicated lane?

    The proposed Bus Rapid Transit system is being rushed into service without adequate research and a full consideration of the positive and negative consequences and a true cost/benefit analysis. The consultant presentations have not permitted open public discussions and have painted an overly rosy picture of the BRT. I think we should slow down and wait to see what is going to happen with the federal, state, and local budgets before committing valuable resources to the BRT. It is highly likely that there will be other local needs which will have to take priority over building new infrastructure if some of the federal and state budget proposals are passed. Please make improvements to MCTS but don’t build the BRT!

  9. Jason Troll says:

    Another service the County cannot afford to provide. They ask for a $ 60 wheel tax to fix the County and then demand B.A.R.T service for Milwaukee County. Should n’t the County be preparing for the next wave of “Making County Retirees Millionaires” instead of adding more costs on to tax payers. The County cannot even afford new transit buses, the last wave was paid for by federal stimulus.

  10. Bob says:

    This is another idiotic idea that has abele’s name all over it just like the tommy’s epic trolley to nowhere. The two open houses attracted a small segment of the population that have interest in this type of transportation but not the masses who will continue to use their cars for transport as it is far more convenient and reliable than mass transportation could ever be in this city. Once again the dems fall for the federal offer of 80% funding for the startup costs with 0 dollars for the annual operating costs estimated to be 3.7 million dollars. Pie in the sky projected ridership numbers but we all know the ridership fees will not be able to sustain the route as we see in Waukesha and Washington counties with the near empty buses running out there wasting taxpayer dollars. Then there is this comment, “It seems like another one of those ‘if you build it they will come,’ kind of projects, so we’ll see how it goes,” Ray said. Yes please back up your ridiculous statement with some facts that support that statement pepper!!!

  11. Vincent Hanna says:

    For Bob and others of his ilk:

    –Sprawl costs us $600 billion a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, and another $400 billion in indirect costs from traffic congestion and pollution. Too much productive capacity and wealth squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes and roads and sprawl that support them rather than being invested in knowledge, technology, and density required for sustainable, high-quality growth.

    -Living near transit means better access to jobs and a better chance of upward mobility.

    From The New Urban Crisis.

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