Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Who Will Be Streetcar Operator?

The city? A private company? The downtown BID? Maybe Ald. Bauman? No one really knows.

By - May 8th, 2014 11:15 am
A rendering of the streetcar coming up Broadway out of the Historic Third Ward.

A rendering of the streetcar coming up Broadway out of the Historic Third Ward.

On April 16th, the State of Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced the award of $3,180,000 to “assist with Milwaukee Streetcar operations in downtown area.”

The federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality [CMAQ] grant is welcome news for urban Milwaukee, and opens the next question in the decades-old quest for modern rail transit here:

So, who’s going to run this thing?

The funds were paid to the City of Milwaukee, which has no experience in operating a transit system. No legislation has been introduced to the Common Council to establish a Transit Department (we’re not Janesville, after all).

Our upcoming street rail system, in its initial stages, will operate only within the city limits, and mostly within the 4th aldermanic district of Bob Bauman, so it would be a bit of a stretch to attach it to a Regional Transit Authority, which would be impossible anyway, since the legislature has forbidden an RTA here.

Nor has there been any talk of the Milwaukee County Transit System operating the streetcar, particularly while the management contract for MCTS remains in dispute. However, Veolia, Inc., a contender for the county contract, currently operates rail systems employing 3,000 people in 10 U.S. cities. Most, but not all, are unionized.

I had taken it as a matter of faith that the streetcars would be operated by members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, but I have not seen any evidence that the bus drivers are preparing to cross-train as rail operators. And, frankly, the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union seems more active on the issue than the folks at the Local.

I asked Ald. Bauman, a noted transit expert, about the union, and he said the streetcar operators might not need to be unionized. This could keep costs down, he says. Put it all together, maybe $100 per hour (with benefits) rather than, say, $165 or whatever they have it up to nowadays.

Who might operate the system? I asked. “The Downtown BID [21] could run it,” he suggests, adding that the organization can enter into contracts and has experience with the neighborhood.

(The Downtown BID already has a fleet of vehicles, including Segways, patrol machines, bicycles, carts, trailers and mobile devices for sweeping sidewalks, not to mention the seasonal rubber-wheeled trolley it runs.)

Eventually, when we get a regional transit system figured out, the streetcar (and presumably the rest of it) would be run by “an outfit like Veolia,” Bauman suggests.

The ever-available international company has for years done contracted work for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.  A Veolia representative told me some months ago he fully expected the firm to ultimately operate the streetcar.

Maybe. But when I asked Beth Werick, the BID 21 executive director, what she thought of getting into the streetcar business, she was on board, full throttle ahead. “I’d love to have the BID operate the streetcar,” she says.

For now the mayor has his mitts on the money; he did not immediately respond to a request asking who would run his system.

Although we do not know who will make the system roll, we do know that the roll-out of the system is managed by Kris Martinsek and Jeff Bentoff, who have kept news of it alive via social media and some very well-attended special events.

A “Streetcar Social” [Facebook] is scheduled for Thursday, May 15th from 5 – 6:30 p.m. at Residence, “featuring stylish interiors and affordable luxuries,” located on the streetcar route at “612 N. Broadway, Downtown Milwaukee.” It will be free and open to the public. The host for the inaugural event is Kerry Shannon, who describes himself as the “Tastemaker / Big Cheese / Errand Boy” at the decorative arts shop. Shannon has said he “consciously chose to locate his store on the streetcar route because it will be good for business.”

Described as “No. 1 in a series of periodic gatherings to promote ridership, raise awareness & support businesses along the route,” the “social will be purely that – casual, relaxed, nonpolitical and without a formal presentation,” the prospectus encouragingly tells us.

The event and others to follow will be held at businesses along the route. Let them celebrate while the rent is still cheap!

The series is patterned after events in Atlanta and Cincinnati which, like Milwaukee, are also expecting streetcars in the near future and are preparing for delivery after recovering from the effects of the mild complications common to first-timers.

Sausage Maker Story Is Baloney

It certainly was an attention-getting announcement posted by Bolzano Artisan Meats of Milwaukee saying it had been “Forced to Close Due To Unjust WI Dept. of Agriculture Actions.”

Husband and wife team Scott Buer and Christin Johnstone-Buer have been making the cured meats using traditional techniques for 5 years, operating out of a factory on N. Holton St. that was once the home of Great Lakes Distillery.

“Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture ordered all production and sales at our company to stop and is leading to the destruction of around $50,000 worth of salami that the USDA, the highest food safety authority in the nation, declared to be safe and wholesome,” the pair wrote.

They poured fat on the fire by adding: “The state agency is also participating in what our legal assistance is calling unprecedented bullying of our small company, and even small stores and co-ops that have carried our products.”

They then provide a link to a fundraising site with a $40,000 goal to “help local food innovator end conflict with state regulators.” The site was started Monday, May 6th and will run until July 5th. Over $2,800 was pledged on the first day.

The funds are for legal counsel, relaunching the company under USDA [not state] inspection, and to provide a “small owners draw of about $500 combined a week owners [sic] for Scott and Christin.”

Raechelle Clein, Public Information Officer Divisions of Animal Health & Food Safety, says Balzano’s claims are not correct.

“The recall of Bolzano products is strictly a USDA Food Safety Inspection Service matter and any comment on the recall would have to come from them. It apparently came to light when a federal investigator discovered an inappropriate use of a federal inspection label on a product.

“In an entirely separate matter, Bolzano changed the way it processed its product and so DATCP has suspended its license until we can be sure the product still meets food safety standards under the new processing procedure. We are working with the company in an effort to assist Bolzano in becoming compliant so it can start producing again.”

Later Bolzano changed some of its claims, but did little to alleviate the confusion when it posted this retort on Facebook:

“BTW, we were not angry and drunk when we wrote the original copy for the Indiegogo campaign – just sleep deprived after weeks of legal fighting. We’re better at charcuterie than editing.”

In an interview, Scott Buer explained that the state only inspects smaller operations like Bolzano. Large companies like Oscar Mayer are federally inspected, and Buer would rather be inspected federally. The state has been difficult to work with, he says, though inspectors seem to enjoy the Bolzano facility, he adds, noting his company’s state-of-the-art equipment. Still, he would welcome a change in inspectors: “I hope we are able to get restarted under federal inspection.”

Never a dull moment for a sausage manufacturer.

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

12 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Who Will Be Streetcar Operator?”

  1. Martin says:

    Let’s see who operators streetcar systems in the United States.

    Portland Streetcar operated by local operator Trimet
    Tucson’s new Modern Streetcar operated by McDonald Transit
    Kansas City’s under construction streetcar system will be operated by Herzog
    Atlanta’s streetcar system will be operated by local transit operator MARTA
    DC Streetcar will be operated by McDonald Transit

  2. Rob Johnston says:

    When I saw the rendering of the new streetcar I was astounded by the lack of imagination in the design of the vehicle. I thought it would should show a return to the past as the name “street car” indicates. I liked the project then, thinking it would be designed to bring back memories of early Milwaukee. Now it seems to be just another project without anything unique. A waste of money.

  3. Dave Reid says:

    The image seen in the renderings is a type of modern streetcar used in other cities. That said a different brand could be chosen. It has been planned from the beginning that Milwaukee would run new modern vehicles at the start, because quite simply they are better vehicles than the historic cars.

  4. Rob Johnston says:

    That’s the kind of thinking we should be wary of. Be more creative. Design the vehicle with a different skin. It could be “new modern” but still evoke the feeling of the past. Yes ?

  5. Terrence Berres says:

    For an experienced local operator, there’s the East Troy Electric Railroad.

  6. Tom D says:

    Rob Johnston, many people associate the word “streetcar” with vehicles of 100 years ago because streetcars are much more durable than automobiles. An automobile that is driven around the clock (like a taxicab) doesn’t more than a few years. A family automobile driven perhaps 2 hours/day (on average) is shot after 15-20 years. A streetcar operating 12-20 hours/day will typically last 50-100 years. San Francisco still uses 16 streetcars built between 1895 and 1928.

    Many people believe that streetcars look like something out of the Model-T era because streetcars built back than still function up to their original design. In Milwaukee, this impression is reinforced by the fact that both Milwaukee’s streetcar (until 1957) and last electric railroad (the North Shore until 1963) used Model-T-era railcars up until the end.

    But the Model-T-era design was built for a different time–before air-conditioning and concern for the handicapped. Today’s larger, non-openable, windows allow air-conditioning, improve visibility, and make the interior quieter, brighter, and less claustrophobic.

    Today’s low-floor design (dropping the floor to curb height thereby eliminating doorway stairs) allows wheelchair passengers to get on and off as easily as they could an elevator. It also makes life simpler for parents with strollers, for old people with walkers, and for travelers with heavy rolling suitcases. Even people in the best of shape slow down on stairs; eliminating them reduces time wasted stopping, making the trip faster for everybody.

    Even the iconic trolley, the pole extending up from the roof to the overhead wire is gone because trolleys can slip off the wire–stalling the streetcar until the driver exits the vehicle to reconnect the trolley to the wire. New streetcars use “pantographs”, which look very different, but are far more reliable.

    The Milwaukee Streetcar has always used the term “modern streetcar” to make clear that it’s not using old vehicle designs.

  7. Rob Johnston says:

    John D you just don’t get what I’m suggesting.

    I don’t think that the important modern elements you mentioned should be changed. Mechanically amazing, the engineer in charge should be applauded. But I think that it is equally important and perhaps even more important that the outward appearances of the “street car” should be designed by an artist with the feeling of Milwaukee’s traditions. We have plenty of stuff that looks toward the future and is thus modern. It seems your project is slowly throwing away our heritage. An artist could help to reverse the trend. We should not be proud to be like other cities. Milwaukee’s unique heritage should be continued. I’m proud of Milwaukee. The current design of the exterior of this vehicle changes the streetcar project into just another bus on the streets.

    Do we need another bus?

  8. Sam says:

    I’m suprised no one at Urban Milwaukee has written anything yet about the other stuff that got CMAQ funding. In the table you link to there’s over $17,000,000 in funding for express bus routes on the 30 bus to UWM and the 27th St bus. The routes are the two busiest in the system and cover a huge section of the city. If those actually improve service unlike current “express” routes they could have a major impact on transit ridership, much bigger than the streetcar is predicted to have.

  9. Tom D says:

    Rob Johnston, modern streetcars will never be confused with an MCTS bus. Modern streetcars are between 65 and 90 feet long, whereas standard buses are only 40 feet. Streetcars bend in the middle while MCTS buses are rigid. Streetcars have 3 or more doorways on each side–often wide enough to accommodate two columns of people; MCTS buses have only two doorways and only on the right side with each only accommodating 1 person at a time. Streetcars have a hinged pantograph on top connecting to the overhead wire.

    Look at pictures of Cincinnati’s new streetcars; they look nothing like buses (scroll to the bottom):


    It is hard to imagine how a streetcar vehicle incorporating modern features could look much like their 100-year-old predecessors. Once you incorporate low-floors, extra-long bodies, large windows, modern dual headlights (instead of Cyclops-like one in the middle),mid-vehicle doors, bendable bodies, and overhead pantographs, the only thing that could look old would be the vehicle seating (impossible-to-clean wicker seats) and exterior (adding rows of faux rivets–a maintenance headache, and making it boxy–flat panels with sharp corners instead of curved surfaces that flow into each other.

    I think I read something about possibly raising private funds to buy an original Milwaukee streetcar with the intention of restoring it and running it occasionally (perhaps on Sundays). Portland, San Francisco, and Ft. Collins, Colorado do something similar.

  10. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Why don’t we just let whomever happens to be on the thing at the time?

  11. Rob Johnston says:

    Tom D …… “The vehicle in your project will never be confused with a MCTS bus” …. true. But the concept and design of your streetcar is basically that of a bigger bus …. also true. As described, I don’t think the vehicle is necessary without change. “It is hard to imagine how a streetcar vehicle incorporating modern features could look much like their 100-year-old predecessors” It is hard but not impossible. It’s just hard for many to imagine at the start.

    I think it was called “Imagineering”. Walt Disney was the “image” and engineers made it happen. For example, by just mentioning an image of the Cyclops headlight you bring back great memories for an artist’s creative mind to develop. Perhaps the artists and engineers could work together to save Milwaukee’s past for the future. The current project should be evaluated again to determine Milwaukee’s real needs. Should the expanded bus we are headed for get a change before it is too late? I think so.

  12. Tim says:

    Thanks Rob, I’m sure it would be better for Milwaukee to study the design to death… Well, I mean if your goal is to thwart the streetcar in Milwaukee.

    I’m sure you can concern troll better; don’t give up!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us