Patti Wenzel

Barrett says Streetcar is an investment in growing Milwaukee

By - Jul 13th, 2011 04:00 am

Mayor Tom Barrett is moving full speed ahead with The Milwaukee Streetcar project, an electric tram that would connect mass transit with businesses, hotels and entertainment destinations. He is lining up funding, lobbying the city council to amend TIF districts and building public support.

But there are skeptics -people who wonder if the city can afford to run its own transit system as MCTS withers under the loss of federal and state funding, lower ridership and increased fares.

Barrett is convinced, as is City Engineer Jeff Polenske, that the streetcar’s time has come and they are moving quickly. Public hearings were held over the past year to gather opinions, environmental studies and economic impact plans  have been prepared, and the plan is ready for a full court press to the city council for its approval later this month.

The $64.6 million project would develop the initial two-mile streetcar line on fixed tracks powered by overhead electric catenary lines. The cars, similar to what is currently on the streets of Portland, would run from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station through downtown to the city’s lower east side. Two route expansions are also in the plan – one running on Prospect and Farwell avenues and a second, running through the 4th Street entertainment district.

During a forum at the Milwaukee Public Market on Monday, citizens were able to see the proposal route, look at examples of the streetcars, learn about the funding of the capital and operating costs and explore the impact on the neighborhoods. City engineers and financiers were on hand to answer questions.

The route

The initial route would run along St. Paul Avenue to Broadway, where it would turn toward downtown. Barrett said Broadway was chosen for the route because it blends in with the city’s development plan to have the Broadway Connector, joining the Third Ward to Wisconsin Avenue. A turn at Wells Street will take the route into the lower east side, with access to MSOE and Cathedral Square. The route will continue on Jefferson and Van Buren steets, making a final turn onto Ogden where it will terminate at Farwell.

If the city is successful in securing a federal Urban Circulator grant, the route would extend north onto Prospect, turn at Brady and head south on Farwell and back to the initial route. On the western end of the route, an extension would run on 4th Street from the Intermodal Station past the U.S. Cellular Arena and Bradley Center with a turn on Juneau to terminate at the Pabst Brewery development.

Milwaukee Streetcar proposed route map

Milwaukee Streetcar route map with extensions.

The route is predicted to be within a quarter-mile of 100 percent of the city’s hotels, 90 percent of occupied 1st floor retail space and professional offices and 75 percent of downtown residential housing.

At Monday’s meeting, one resident expressed her dismay over the idea of a streetcar running past her Ogden Avenue home, or by the potential loss of parking and green space.

“No one has asked the residents of the neighborhood,” said Leone Lewensohn, a 50-year resident of the area. “They’re taking away parking, they’re having cars and trains running both east and west on my street and that street is not wide enough. And you know what will happen? They will take the greenspace. Plus this isn’t a meeting, there is no give and take.”


Barrett has proposed to use the $54.9 million in federal transit funds the city has been siting on for almost two decades for the construction and capital purchases of the initial route. That, along with an additional $25 million in federal funds would make up the federal portion of a match program the city of Milwaukee will enter into for the capital portion of the project – tracks, trains and electric infrastructure.

The city will have to come up with $16.5 in matching funds and Barrett wants to tap the Cathedral Place Tax Incremental District for the money. The TIF was created for the Cathedral Place office center and parking garage at the corner of Jefferson and Wells. The tax revenues diverted from the increased value of the property were used to pay for the parking garage and were scheduled to expire in 2015.

The Joint Review Board for Tax Incremental Districts discussed the option Tuesday afternoon. If an extension of the TIF is allowed for the streetcar project, property tax dollars would be diverted to the project and away from the city, county, school district and technical college coffers until 2025.

As for the operating costs, the plan calls for farebox revenues, city parking receipts and private contributions to cover the annual bill. For the initial route, the operating cost is predicted to be $2.62 million.

Ridership revenue is predicted to reach $1.39 million in 2015 (the first year of operation) based on a $1 fare. In 2030, ridership revenue could reach $1. 66 million.

The city budgeted $21 million in parking-related revenues for 2011 and according to a representative on hand Monday evening, approximately $1.5 – $2 million of those revenues would be used towards the streetcar operating costs.

And while there were no specific names of contributors provided at this time, Barrett recently told the Business Journal that he would like to see the city contract with the Milwaukee County Transit System to operate the line. Could this mean the county would end up absorbing at least some of the operating costs?

That is not on the radar of County Executive Chris Abele. His spokesperson Jeff Bentoff said Abele and Barrett have discussed the streetcar and Abele is supportive of alternative transit system in the region.

“However, Chris’s focus is on the unprecedented cuts in the Governor’s budget to MCTS,” Bentoff said. “The county bus system is facing a $15 million hole and that is our focus right now. What Chris has said is any country role would have to be fiscally responsible.”


public comment on Milwaukee streetcar

Members of the public fill out comment cards at a forum on the Milwaukee Streetcar on Monday. Photo by Patti Wenzel


The streetcar study is very positive in the potential growth and revenue increases that will follow the streetcar. Since these are all projections, the numbers are not guaranteed but look hopeful for the city.

The economic development potential within the quarter-mile buffer of the initial route and extensions over the next 20 years could generate approximately 9,000 new housing units, 13,500 new residents, 1,000,000 square feet of new occupied retail space and 4,000,000 square feet of new occupied office space. In addition, the city predicts over 20,500 new jobs and $3.35 billion in new tax base will be created by the streetcar.

“While there are obvious transportation and environmental benefits, I see the streetcar as an investment in growing Milwaukee,” Barrett said. “When we build the Milwaukee Streetcar, we are laying the foundation for new business and residential development and the growth of our tax base.

Barrett is confident the streetcar proposal will face a smooth ride to approval. On Thursday, July 14, the Common Council Steering and Rules Committee will hold a public hearing to take testimony on the plan at City Hall. If they give their approval, the proposal will move onto the full council on July 26.

To share comments about the streetcar proposal with the city, contact Barrett at or Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines at

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

0 thoughts on “Barrett says Streetcar is an investment in growing Milwaukee”

  1. Anonymous says:

    If peasants are allowed to ride it, nobles won’t, so it’s not worth doing. Public transportation is a threat – just like democracy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Fix the pfhucking streets Barrett! Nobody wants a damn train that won’t justify the cost.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Streetcars? Yes.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It is about time Milwaukee moves out of the 19th century and utilizes long dormant federal funds to provide better infrastructure and transit options for the metro area. The key for success of the streetcars will be to expand outwards west, northwest, and south to attract more riders both for tourism and daily commutes. We all know the suburbs are dead set against any form of modernization that upsets their isolationist environment but they need not worry. These streetcars will not invade their sacred grounds! Credit city officials with the guts to move forward on this project. It is a shame that some politicians use mass transit as a political issue instead of focusing on the economic benefits of transit. Look at Portland Oregon as proof of what tranist improvements can do to boost the economic vitality of a city.

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