Should County Operate Streetcar?
Board members push -- belatedly -- for county transit to operate streetcar.
With an April 4th deadline looming, a Milwaukee County Board committee is making a last minute push for the Milwaukee County Transit System to bid on operating the Milwaukee Streetcar. At a meeting held Tuesday morning, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee approved a policy measure that would request the director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and the Milwaukee County Transit System to respond to a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the city for operation and maintenance of the Milwaukee Streetcar. The legislation, which is scheduled to go before the full board on March 23rd, is sponsored by board chair Theodore Lipscomb Sr. and supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic and Eddie Cullen.
During the hearing Milwaukee County Transit System director Dan Boehm raised a number of issues regarding the proposed bid, telling the committee “the deck’s pretty stacked against us.” Boehm noted the city’s RFP specifically declares it’s seeking an experienced streetcar operator with a minimum of five years of experience. Boehm noted a significant challenge also comes from separate state and county laws that bar the county from expending money on the streetcar system. The streetcar operator would be paid by the city, but would do so in an at-risk position, meaning that if the county were to bid too low, it could lose money and be in violation of state law. To avoid this scenario, the county would have to propose a fairly high cost, which would reduce their likelihood of winning the contract.
Comptroller Scott Manske also testified before the committee, saying the difficulty of the county putting together a proposal that can win means it won’t recoup the cost of doing the RFP in the first place.
Dimitrijevic, who previously called the proposal “a chance for Milwaukee County to literally be in the driver’s seat,” was not impressed by Boehm’s testimony, saying “I’m disappointed; it feels like there is a lack of vision.” This was echoed by Amalgamated Transit Union local 998 president and frequent MCTS critic James Macon, whose speech offered a long-winded vision that referenced everything from buses to Sheboygan to the heritage streetcar in Kenosha before being cut off by committee chair Michael Mayo, Sr. The transit union has made a push to support this legislation and had a number of members in attendance. Ironically, in 2015 the union came out in opposition to the streetcar.
The bid, which will be scored by the city on a 100-point scale, requires a “Minimum of five (5) years of demonstrated streetcar or related transit service experience on similar systems in an urban environment.” Unless county officials find a partner in a hurry, their bid seems likely to receive a failing grade. Fifty percent of the RFP score is based on “experience and qualifications” and “past performance” — of which the county has none outside of the long-term operation of its own bus system. And as Boehm explained, the county won’t be in a position to put in a low bid, which constitutes another 30 percent of the bid score.
The committee ultimately approved the measure on a four-to-one vote, with supervisor John Weishan, Jr. voting in opposition. Weishan introduced the amendment to the 2017 budget that echoes a state law preventing Milwaukee County from spending money on the streetcar project.
Assuming the full board approves the measure on March 23rd and the county executive signs it into law, the county would find itself with less than two weeks to assemble the challenging bid. It’s unclear if County Executive Chris Abele would sign the measure though; transportation department director Brian Drank said “I think we’ll have to see how it comes through” when questioned about a possible veto by Dimitrijevic. Dranzik and Boehm did both say that if the measure was approved they would work on it, but that didn’t inspire confidence in Lipscomb, who later complained, “there is a history of the county executive not following board policy.”
While the RFP opportunity has all but passed them by, will the county executive, board and MCTS work together to make sure that the fare collection system is at least run through the widely-adopted M-Card? The rhetoric at the hearing today didn’t make that seem likely. Lipscomb noted “the history is that the county executive didn’t want to run our own bus system,” referring to the controversial proposal by Abele to hire MV Transportation to replace the non-profit Milwaukee Transport Services that was killed by the board.
Losing the contract doesn’t mean the county will never have a chance to bid again. The first operator contract is being awarded for a minimum of six years, three months with a five-year renewal option held by the city. The streetcar is expected to start operation in November 2018.
Failure of Leadership
What’s clear from this 11th hour push to operate the Milwaukee Streetcar is that neither Abele nor the county board has great interest in actually operating the streetcar. While Mayor Tom Barrett and alderman and leading streetcar proponent Robert Bauman mentioned years ago they thought the logical party to be paid to operate the streetcar was the county, county officials have sat idly by watching the project take shape. Now an attempt to put a bid in has come weeks after the long-anticipated RFP was issued on February 17th.
With the right partner who had streetcar operating experience, the county stood a good chance of winning the bid and potentially turning a profit for the county at the city’s expense. Instead that money will likely go to one of the yet-to-be identified parties who were in attendance at a required March 2nd pre-proposal meeting for the system. Instead of planning for the RFP months ago, the county’s bid is coming in a belated fashion, and mired in something all too familiar to Milwaukee County citizens – finger pointing by the county board and county executive.
For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.
- Transportation: Streetcar Service Goes From Bad To Worse - Jeramey Jannene - May 3rd, 2022
- Transportation: Should National Avenue Rebuild Include Plans for Streetcar? - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 8th, 2022
- Transportation: Maintenance Issues Reduce The Hop’s Schedule - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 4th, 2022
- Transportation: Congress Extends Streetcar Grant - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 16th, 2022
- City Needs Act of Congress Because of Couture-Streetcar Delay - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 1st, 2022
- Transportation: Streetcar Study Draws Controversy - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 27th, 2021
- Transportation: Streetcar Returning To Full Schedule - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 26th, 2021
- Transportation: Southside Streetcar Study, Street Improvements Approved - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 20th, 2021
- Transportation: City Proposes Study of Streetcar to Walker’s Point - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 8th, 2021
- Transportation: First Streetcar Smart Kiosks Installed - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 3rd, 2021
Read more about Milwaukee Streetcar here