Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Council Approves BRT Route Restrictions

Learn more about what alderman Bauman claims is a route worth studying

By - Aug 1st, 2017 01:31 pm
Bus Rapid Transit line in Los Angeles. Photo by Robert Bauman.

Bus Rapid Transit line in Los Angeles. Photo by Robert Bauman.

Without a second of floor debate the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved restricting the use of dedicated lanes on a substantial portion of the county’s proposed East-West Bus Rapid Transit line.

The measure, which was co-sponsored by council members Michael Murphy and Robert Bauman, solidifies the stance that the city will not dedicate lanes on W. Bluemound Rd. west of N. Hawley Rd.

The approximately nine mile long project is proposed to run from a park and ride lot just northwest of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center to the proposed The Couture tower on on the lakefront. The route would run through Wauwatosa and Milwaukee using W. Bluemound Rd. and Wisconsin Ave.

At a committee hearing earlier this month the two council members accused the county of breaking good faith on the project. At the hearing a prescient Ald. Jim Bohl noted that the resolution likely has unanimous support from the full council, stating “to me this is a waste of time” and “a lesson in futility… I see this passing the council 15-0.”

Staunch public transit advocate Bauman took things further, stating “on my recent trip to Cleveland where I rode bus rapid transit ad nauseum, I learned, I think, we’re putting bus rapid transportation on the wrong corridor.”

The BRT project is seeking a grant from the federal government to fund up to 80 percent of its estimated $48 million cost. The project would be operated by the Milwaukee County Transit System.

For more on the restrictions and BRT project, see our coverage from the hearing.

Bauman Talks BRT

I followed up with Ald. Bauman regarding his thoughts for what the right corridor was. The alderman frequently travels the country and regularly rides public transit in other metropolitan areas. He’s also a historian on all things transit, even having once operated a firm that reconstructed passenger rail cars and equipment.

The alderman noted that he’s in favor of dedicated lanes for the rapid transit proposal from Interstate 43 and W. Wisconsin Ave. to the Wisconsin Ave. bridge over the Miller Valley at N. 38th St. He notes that they fit there, unlike on W. Wisconsin Ave. from freeway to the Milwaukee River.

It’s N. 38th St. to the west where he notes that the ridership sharply declines. Instead of the current plans, Bauman believes that the BRT project team should be studying the 1996 light rail proposal that envisioned a light rail line from downtown dropping underneath the Wisconsin Ave. bridge and following the Canadian Pacific rail corridor into the Wauwatosa Village before turning south into the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.

Would a bus-only road fit in that corridor? An approximately 400-page study from 1996 says so. Bauman says the plan, which he still maintains a copy of, involved relocating the existing tracks to the edge of the roughly 100-foot-wide right-of-way. He notes that light rail vehicles and bus rapid transit vehicles are roughly the same width, and operate in the same right-of-way in cities such as Pittsburgh and Seattle.

The 32-mile, regional plan, which ultimately died at the ends of Republican legislators and talk radio, would have built stations along W. State St. and near the Wauwatosa Village. Bauman notes that there are more riders in that corridor than along far western Wisconsin Ave. or W. Bluemound Rd., and vehicles would be able to move substantially faster on their own road.

In his testimony at the hearing earlier in July the alderman chided the bus rapid transit planning team for even failing to study this option to point of getting a rough cost estimate.

The light rail plan:

What Cities Are Getting It Right?

The alderman notes that in his travels “the gold standard” for bus rapid transit is the Orange Line in Los Angeles. The 18-mile line provides roughly 22,000 rides a day in a corridor that Bauman estimates is approximately 80 percent exclusive right-of-way. The line, which opened in 2005, uses special buses and a number of speed-enhancing techniques proposed for Milwaukee’s system including off-bus ticketing.

Unlike the Milwaukee line, the system doesn’t operate entirely on city streets. Almost all of the route is on a bus-only road in a former railroad corridor. Paralleling the private road is a lengthy bike and pedestrian trail.

Bauman, clearly thinking about possible future extensions of the Milwaukee Streetcar, also noted that Pittsburgh and Seattle have tunnels where buses and light rail use the same dedicated right-of-way. The buses run atop rails embedded in the street, but on a transit-only lane or road allowing for speed and operational efficiencies. He notes that Pittsburgh leverages this dual-use dedicated corridor setup in a number of locations to improve their basic bus service while facilitating a regional light rail system.

Other cities have already overhauled express bus systems to become rail systems. The alderman notes that the highly successful Kansas City streetcar line that recently opened effectively replaces an express bus line and is generating increased ridership in the corridor between Downtown and Union Station. Future expansions of the system are already planned.

The alderman has also ridden the Silver Line in Boston. A series of co-branded bus rapid transit lines, the Silver Line operates in a wide variety of configurations including in mixed traffic on the highway, in a dedicated tunnel like a subway and on dedicated and mixed lanes on city streets. While he admits his observations are anecdotal, he noticed a number of vehicles encroaching on the Silver Line while it operates on city streets, something that will have to be addressed with the Milwaukee system.

With years before the the bus rapid transit system could open or possibly even secure federal funding from President Donald Trump, expect Bauman to continue to push to build a regional system that more closely resembles light rail than the bus system Milwaukee currently has.

Bus rapid transit:

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9 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Approves BRT Route Restrictions”

  1. Beer Baron says:

    Interesting! I’ve always thought we need to explore the high power line system as well around this city. The right of way is there seeing as that’s where the old rail lines used to run, so we do know we could put something there.

    And seeing as this state is so hyper anti-rail, building a full system of BRT would be a way to get around it until they ridership climbs create an undeniable demand for rail.

  2. Rich says:

    Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress, Ald. Bauman. We can barely scrape by the cash to make BRT happen on Wisconsin and Bluemound — existing roads. The cost of physically relocating mainline railroad tracks is enough to kill the project on its face.

  3. Tom T. says:

    Exactly Rich. Tunnels?! Wtf! Bauman is nuts and Murphy will do anything for a vote.

  4. Bruce Thompson says:

    I agree with Rich. If the rapid transit advocates split into feuding sects, Milwaukee will never make progress.

  5. blurondo says:

    “regional transit system”. While a system is not the same as an “authority”, the phrase brought to mind what the Wisconsin Legislature did in 2011:

  6. Jeff M says:

    Bauman is right. I have to wonder if the detractors know anything about Orange County, Salt Lake City, Portland, etc?

  7. James says:

    State Street runs parallel to the rail corridor. Bus Rt. 31 already runs from the Medical Center down State Street, and then down Highland. Express Buses running on State Street from the Medical Center and then down Wisconsin from 38th Street would be a lot cheaper than moving railroad tracks and building a busway.

  8. Mike says:

    The bus system, imho, is excellent here in mke. Only wish is that they’d take the trunk lines (with color names) and upgrade to every 10 minute service from system open to close.

  9. sjresh says:

    Why is it Milwaukee can not ever learn from other cities successes? Why do we alway have to do things our way, screw it up, then finally realize that the right way was the way other cities did it in the first place. Oh, that’s right, here in Milwaukee we have to waste a couple of million dollars of tax payer money before we can admit we screwed it up in the first place. Then do it right and waste some more money! I guess if common sense was common everyone would have it!! Why not just listen to the people who know what they’re talking about, these studies weren’t done because someone was bored and had nothing to do with their time. Why not for a change listen, and act accordingly!!! Or is that just way to much to ask from elected officials?

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