Dave Reid

Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee

By - Mar 14th, 2009 01:21 pm


With the recent news of the federal approval allowing the City of Milwaukee to move forward on a modern streetcar system we thought it would be good to see what one of these systems might look like. A comparable system to what is being proposed in Milwaukee is Seattle’s 2.6 mile South Lake Union Line which launched in 2007.

A key factor that plays a role in the ridership levels of a system is the level of population density. Milwaukee’s population density of 6,214.7/sq mi compares closely with Seattle’s population density of 6,717.0/sq mi, and this level of support has allowed Seattle’s new line to serve more than 500,000 riders in its first year of operation exceeding the initial estimates. Although the Seattle line is slightly shorter than Mayor Barrett’s proposed route it has similar features in that it connects undeveloped areas near downtown to downtown with the goal of spurring economic development. Specifically the Denny Triangle is in an area of Seattle that although more developed than the Park East is in need of economic development and has apparently already seen development occur along the line.

To learn more about what may soon be coming to Milwaukee check out the video below: (If you have trouble viewing this video you can also see it on streetfilms)

Maybe in a few years we could have events like TRAMix. Check out the video below:

More about the Milwaukee Streetcar

For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.

Read more about Milwaukee Streetcar here


24 thoughts on “Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee”

  1. Sam Dodge says:

    When I saw this story I was really happy. I’ve used the streetcars in Portland and they are a superb solution. This could be a great way to get people into those areas that really need foot traffic and development (like the Park East as you mentioned).

    I still find this funny though, since my mom grew up in Milwaukee and used to ride the street cars almost every day as a kid.

  2. Matt Muelver says:

    Congratulations. The removal of street parking along the route is even more reason to keep those of us who’ve been fighting against this cute but expensive little choo-choo out of downtown. I’m starting to think that was the goal all along, to drive “car people” out of the city and into the outskirts. What do you guys call the freedom to drive again? Oh yeah, “sprawl” pronounced with a condescending snarl.

    So there’s now no doubt that we’re getting Tommy’s silly little train but there is a very serious question about where the REST of the money will come from. The city has been given ~$55M right? Barrett’s numbers had construction of the streetcars at $100M, which is actually a slightly conservative number when you take a look at the average cost per mile for similar systems of $35M/mi. So where is the rest of the money going to come from? Then once it is built where will the operating funding come from? Milwaukee County is estimating that the state will be taking ~$3M of annual funding away from the bus system to help run the streetcars. Does anyone believe that this system can be run on $3M per year? What about the bus system? Everyone acknowledges that it needs more funding and yet this streetcar system will be draining a hefty chunk away from it. That’ll be $3M spent on a 2.8 mile circuit downtown instead of on the bus system that serves the entire county.

    Here’s what I predict. Tom Barrett will push for the RTA to take over the streetcars. The RTA will push for a new tax on the entire region which it will use to pay for this system that benefits only the select few urbanists in downtown who will use it. Milwaukee County will push for a new county sales tax (which the county board is already working on) to fill in the holes left in the bus system’s budget. The City of Milwaukee will push for new parking surcharges in the downtown area (something Barrett has already announced as his plan to help pay for the streetcars). The net effect is that the “car people” who will no longer come downtown unless they are required to will pay for the entire system that they will not use. They’ll pay for it in sales tax on every single thing that they buy and they’ll pay for it in extra parking fees when they do have to go downtown. Way to stick it to us.

  3. Dave Reid says:

    @Matt (welcome to UrbanMilwaukee.com) We’ll reply to the other things you brought up later. But this is a streetcar, not full on light-rail, so generally speaking it won’t impact onstreet parking, other than maybe in a couple spots in the corners.

  4. MilwaukeeD says:

    Matt, streetcars don’t run in the parking lane, they run in the right travel lane. Thus, few, if any parking spaces will be lost downtown.

    Also, I think that just about everyone in the region comes downtown at least once a year. A downtown system isn’t just for downtown people, it is for everybody.

    It will allow you to park further from an event to avoid paying $15-20 to park. Or, if you want to park across the street from an event, you will be able to find a spot easier because other people will be parking further away and taking the streetcar there.

    It will let you leave your car in one spot all night without having to worry about searching for parking again.

    Lastly, the $91.5m was set aside for a DOWNTOWN circulator years ago. The fact that the City is only getting 60% shows just how much Barrett has been willing to compromise. He could have asked for 100% of it and likely is entitled to it.

  5. Chonter says:

    @Matt – had a little too much am radio eh?

    Everyone else – Finally! I just hope they can get this thing going soon and connect it out to the country grounds and UWM. Bravo!

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Chonter I’m pretty sure your connecting it to the County Grounds mention was a joke because of your next comment. But so everyone is clear this is a streetcar system, not full blown light-rail so it isn’t likely to go out that far.

  7. Joel says:

    Under Barrett’s system, he wants a streetcar loop in the CBD, then BRT that branches off to points such as the County Grounds and others. The catch is that these future BRT lines are kind of supposed to be switched to light rail lines some time after the BRT lines have been created.

  8. kiara says:

    It’s hard to answer all of the bridge and tunnel, apparently pro (snarl) sprawl guy’s concerns above, but let’s keep a little trolley distinct from a regional solution.

  9. Jason Haas says:

    New Phoenix [Arizona] Light Rail System Exceeding Ridership Projections:


    This bodes very well for us here.

  10. Dave Reid says:

    Yea the downtown streetcar will just be one part of an entire system.

  11. Matt Muelver says:

    @Dave Reid – Eagerly waiting for the reply to the rest of my points.

    @MilwaukeeD – If other people end up taking the streetcar and getting the heck out of my way so that I can park closer then at least this thing will have one benefit. We’ll see if that turns out to be true. When I go downtown (or anywhere) I don’t like to pay for parking at all. Thus I go downtown as little as possible since free parking is pretty much nonexistent. I’m definitely not interested in driving part of the way and then paying to be crammed into a slow moving sardine can to get the rest of the way to my destination. I tried that a couple of times when I used to go to Summerfest (Park and Ride) and hated it, now I just ride my motorcycle and park in the free HD lot. It was my understanding that all of the money was to be spent on public transit in general, not that there was any set dollar amount pigeonholed for a certain specific use. If you’ve got proof otherwise I’d appreciate a link.

    @Chonter – I actually don’t get much radio at all these days, so no, I haven’t had too much AM. Your second statement proves that there’s validity to my next fear – that this circular system is intended to eventually run all over the city costing millions of dollars per mile to install and millions more to operate every year.

    @Joel’s comment again backs up that fear.

    @kiara – I am not pro-snarl or pro-sprawl. I’m pro-freedom and anti-tax. Why is it so hard to answer all of my arguments? I didn’t talk about bridges or tunnels anywhere in my comment, BTW.

    @All – Why do so many commenters hide behind nicknames?

    My next sentence is likely to put most of you into shock so please sit down before reading it. If I am wrong I will admit it and correct myself. It has been my understanding that this streetcar system would mean losing a lot of parking so that the streetcars can run without being tied up by traffic. If that’s not the case then the streetcars will get tied up in traffic which makes them even sillier in my opinion but at least the parking will remain. I’ll wait to see exactly what the plans are (I have not seen concrete plans yet, if anyone else has I’d appreciate a link) and do more research in the interim.

  12. Dave Reid says:

    @Matt Sorry I was busy correcting people saying this wouldn’t run in the snow and would take out parking lanes:)

    The additional funding to build the system out will likely come from TIF funds, RTA funds (The KRM proposal has money for a circulator system built in), and possibly parking charges though I think that will be on the operational side. Barrett’s numbers for this specific system were never $100 million (again this is incorrect) and understand that when you see numbers tossed around like $35 million per mile that’s because those cities tossed in additional road features and unrelated road costs into the rebuild cost. It is possible to do this at $20 million per mile (like Kenosha did I believe) and makeup the $5 million mainly via TIF.

    I believe the system will run at under $5 million per year. There isn’t a bus system and a rail system. There is a transit system, and this will simply be another feature of it.

    Something that benefits downtown Milwaukee is a benefit to Milwaukee County. And yea I think this will eventually end up in the RTA, if we’re so lucky, but that means it will be paid by taxes in Milwaukee County not the entire region (the RTA deal is actually pretty complicated that way).

    Initially I think you’re right there will be some sort of parking surcharge, but it won’t be the end of people coming downtown. Downtown has the events, nightlife, museums, lake front, and well things that make it worth to pay to park. Further if the surcharge is configured correctly it could encourage new development in downtown Milwaukee as an additional bonus. Incidentally I pay $85 a month to park my car downtown, and it sure hasn’t made me leave.

  13. Joel says:

    so what if a light rail system costs millions to maintain, thats good. Why? because it costs HUNDREDS of millions to maintain HIGHWAYS not to mention reconstruction/resurfacing every decade, not to mention pot hole fixing, not to mention winter snow plowing/salting/sanding. BTW trains keep running in snow and ice unlike buses that are going to have just a LITTTTTLE bit of trouble. when i said future BRT lines would be switched over to LR, i forgot to mention thats a GOOD thing.

  14. Alex says:

    Great post!

  15. Matt Muelver says:

    @Joel – Would you have us remove all roads, or let them deteriorate, and instead have rail lines running everywhere?

  16. DAN says:

    I would remove every single road.

    Could you imagine a functional society without cars and roads?

  17. Joel says:

    Yes i would remove all roads LOL…seriously though, NOW, we have enough roads and wide enough roads, its time to give the public an ALTERNATIVE to ROADS. Its as simple as that…I thought the whole point of living in America was the freedom of choice…I think its funny that when it comes to transportation, some of YOU dont want that freedom of choice, HMM. There are plenty of cities bigger AND SMALLER than Milwaukee that have rail public transit systems that are successful, why do some of YOU think Milwaukee is an exception? Want examples?
    Buffalo – city pop. 290,000, metro pop 1,200,000…1 line and half of it is a freakin subway
    Sacramento – city pop. 460,000, metro pop 2,000,000…2 lines at 37 miles
    Cleveland – city pop. 470,000, metro pop 2,200,000…3 lines – 2 light rail, 1 rapid transit 37 miles
    Portland, OR – city pop. 580,000, metro pop 2,100,000…streetcar and lightrail, 3 lightrail lines at 44 miles
    Salt Lake City – city pop 180,000, metro pop 1,000,000…2 lines 19 miles, 3 lines underconstruction
    Charlotte, NC – city pop 670,000, metro pop 1,800,000…1 line 9 miles, numerous future lines
    Pittsburgh – city pop 312,000, metro pop 2,400,000…4 lines 25 miles
    Why do some people think Milwaukee is an EXCEPTION?

  18. Jeramey Jannene says:


    The plan is that they would run with traffic, not in a dedicated lane (one of the primary divisions between light rail and street car). They wouldn’t get stuck in traffic because of stop light priority. They would always be able to move when they wanted to move.

    In response to another point about taking money away from buses, no that’s not true. Ideally, it would be budgeted into the RTA via the local (by county) management committees. It would draw from the pool of money that is generated by the up to 0.5% sales tax. Again that’s all ideal. Other options would include partial funding by BID #21 (that’s the downtown BID), and a variety of other funding sources. That sales tax is largely designed to be made up of a property tax reduction at the county level (which instead of 100% Milwaukee-resident funded, brings in 30% of its value from outside the county). If you think that accompanying property tax reduction is important, I suggest you the supervisors and let them know. If you don’t think your message is getting through, run for office again.

    The streetcar system would work well with the bus system, as they could likely share stops and obviously transfer passengers to one another to expand their service area. Also, we might end up needing less bus service down Wisconsin Ave, which would make it easier to drive, more pleasant to walk (because of noise), and less costly (less time on the road for buses).

    “Car people” as you are calling yourself should love the streetcar, it will help make event-priced parking a thing of the past for many by allowing you to park elsewhere. There is plenty of your beloved free parking in East Town, you can park over here and ride on over to West Town to go to a Bucks game or concert.

    Oh, and the urbanists who ride this thing, probably the 78,000 people who work downtown, the 15,000 who live downtown, and the even larger number of people who come downtown because they believe it’s the cultural and entertainment hub of Milwaukee.

  19. tmbrowndeer says:

    I think that this is very inexpensive to build and will prove itself in the long run but understand the concerns here. . Expectations need to be reset around what this is and intended to be. its been a long time since any debate and details around what if being put forward and it seems most people will have their own version. Whats needed is for the mayor to be clear about the intention and benefit now in order to have any real opinons. If urban milwaukee writers can clear up the route , plan, and finincial questions then it would make sense to have a debate. Otherwise we can only guess.

  20. Douglas Glatzel says:

    I am happy to see some movement on mass transit improvements in Milwaukee. However, I think the proposed routes miss key parts of the city–Miller Park/Potawatomi/Harley Museum, Marquette, UWM, and Summerfest grounds. Without connections to these popular locations, I think this system has more of a chance of being a white elephant.

  21. Dave Reid says:

    @Doug I agree it would be nice to connect to many of those sites but there just isn’t the money available to do that. Hopefully this will be the beginning of the bigger system.

  22. Yance says:

    Streetcar lines can be designed to eat up the parking lane and without requiring major street reconstruction, in this case, it would be easier and safer to use the parking lane. But that isn’t the end of the world. Street parking along this corridor on one side of the street does not account for a lot of cars.

    I would design the system to use the parking lane in the sections with narrower roadways. It’s actually safer for passengers to load and unload without requiring an extra safety loading zone in the middle of the street. Take for example the stretch of roadway on 4th Street between Wells and St Paul. It has a 40-ft pavement with two 12-ft driving lanes and two 8-ft parking lanes. Placing rail down the middle with a minimum 4-ft wide loading zone at the main cross streets is going require parking to be limited anyways. Then you have the safety problem of passengers needing to watch out for traffic on exiting. It is much safer for them to alight directly on the public walk. In the stretches with boulevards then it would be better to have it run along the boulevard or within the boulevard. The entire line can be constructed without requiring too much in the way of geometric changes.

    Most of the studies that have been done address Matt’s concerns about operating costs. The system can easily be self sustaining without increasing taxes. It also is built primarily for a passenger base that is separate from MCTS. It won’t compete and takes advantage of moving the commuters that depend on the bus/rail connections from the Inter Modal Station through downtown, something which MCTS really doesn’t accomplish or does so poorly. As it is the #57 is the only bus line that connects to the Station and that connects to a very tiny area of downtown.

    The big issue that people also seem to have is the imagined loss of parking. There is a vast amount of parking downtown. Many structures are not even filled to capacity on the busiest of days. It doesn’t cause a driver too much trouble to park someplace free and take a bus directly to their destination. The city could potentially build some free satellite parking lots along underused bus routes to boost the fears of people like Matt. People regularly pay over $10 to park for Bucks games. If they could park for free and take a $2 shuttle directly to the game, I know those shuttles would be packed.

  23. Fernando says:

    @Matt: FREEDOM?

    I love how the rightists always yap about freedom, as if they have some sort of ownership of it.

    How about the freedom to attend public events without paying through the nose for parking? How about getting to work in less than an hour, after sitting behind a hundred thousand OTHER cars every morning? How about me paying LESS taxes with transit choices instead of the same old lecture about how freedom equals car?

    Car drivers are subsidized like CRAZY by taxpayers like me. I love freedom just as much as any republican. Probably more, considering I want poor people to have options too. Old people can’t use cars like you and me can. Neither can kids. What’s so “freedom” about them staying at home to satisfy Scott Walker’s bid to become Republitarian of the Year?

    Taxpayers totally subsidize your “freedom” by paying through the NOSE for car and truck infrastructure (highways, roads, etc). Rail lines are largely private and have been competing with a trucking industry that doesn’t directly pay for its own infrastructure. There’s nothing about that arrangement that sounds like “freedom” to me, unless you’re a trucker or car driver who’s too cheap to pay for stuff that benefits everyone.

  24. Ben says:

    Very exciting! Yet another step to help Milwaukee’s ‘usability’!

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