Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Should County Operate Streetcar?

Board members push -- belatedly -- for county transit to operate streetcar.

By - Mar 8th, 2017 03:09 pm
A rendering of a Brookville streetcar in Milwaukee's Third Ward. Milwaukee's streetcars will be manufactured by U.S.-based Brookville Equipment Corp.

Rendering of a Brookville streetcar in the Third Ward. Milwaukee’s streetcars will be made by Brookville Equipment Corp.

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.

Bohm also noted the RFP excludes fare collection systems and customer service, two areas which he said are great opportunities for Milwaukee County to collaborate with the city outside the RFP, given the county’s M-Card fare system and transit system customer service center.

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.

What’s Next?

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.

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

11 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Should County Operate Streetcar?”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Milwaukee county could not operate a Whore house in the Yukon at the height of the Gold Rush.

  2. Lemay says:

    LOL, this is such a Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors move…

    “Like, it’s late, and we like, have no chance to win, but I just thought of it, and I’m brilliant, and it would make us important and look good in a newsletter, and I’ve learned nothing since we pulled this same thing with the GoPass and it blew up in our faces, so I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t think it’s brilliant and why Abele just doesn’t make it happen”.

  3. Tim says:

    WCD, if that’s the case then why does the state of WI entrust millions of dollars annually to Milwaukee County to administer the state’s obligations? Why not just cut out the County and save taxpayers money?

    Does Governor Walker not care about wasting state money? Or could they not do it better?

  4. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    They should not they are disaster. Many people think we should elminate Milwaukee county all together and have state take it over.

  5. Eric S says:

    I’m less concerned with whether the city has the county actually operate the streetcar than I am with the city making sure the streetcar fares are integrated with the bus system fares – accepts M-Card, transfer privileges, etc.

  6. AG says:

    This is one surefire way to make sure the streetcar is not solvent.

  7. I agree with Eric S., The integration of the system fares is essential. If it could be under one hat that is best case scenario. Seems like less duplication of administrative cost.

  8. The requirement for an experienced operator of a rail system is significant and understandable. This is the sort of contract that would be analagous to the Veolia operation of MMSD. Other cities have gone the same “route”.

    The failure of the union to address its self interest years ago is baffling, unless you consider its clearly incompetent leadership. Will these be union jobs? I think not.

    The weakness of the County Board and administration is also clear, as evidenced by the author’s observations. A last-minute entry into a project decades old is a failure of leadership.

  9. Big Al says:

    WCD – “Many people think we should elminate Milwaukee county all together and have state take it over.”

    The word ‘many’ means more than just you. Besides, I’m sure if the state wanted to it already would have; local control means nothing to the GOP when they’re talking about Milwaukee County or Dane County. Plus since Walker was in charge here for 8 years, I’m shocked that the county isn’t perfect due to his wonderful and insightful leadership. Oh yeah, the problems are all Abele’s fault, Obama’s fault, Doyle’s fault, and Barrett’s fault.

  10. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Big Al finally said something of value. Who is in charge of the disastrous problem called Milwaukee county.

  11. Tom T. says:

    Mr. Michael Horne….. I completely agree. It’s no secret that the Local ATU is a poorly run, disorganized, combative and dysfunctional operation. It does not surprise me that they’re suddenly in favor of MCTS operating the streetcar after coming out against it earlier. Furthermore, I don’t believe there is any mention in the article of the fact that the County Board passed a resolution a few months ago that stated MCTS could not take part in the operation of the streetcar.

    Its clear that the Exec’s office is not interested in operating the city’s streetcar system.

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