City Extending Streetcar to Convention Center
Short extension can be built without federal funds, adding more ridership.
The western end of The Hop’s route could soon be much more useful. The city is planning a one-stop extension to bring the system to the front door of the Wisconsin Center at W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and into Westown. The line could be built without federal funds.
City officials have been working on engineering plans for the extension for months, something that Mayor Tom Barrett subtly teased in his speech at the system’s inauguration on November 2nd. In a lengthy speech thanking virtually everyone that ever worked on the project, Barrett quickly mentioned: “we have started the design work on the first leg of the streetcar to Bronzeville.”
The city has recently begun meeting with multiple community groups on the plan, several sources report.
The plan, which would extend the 2.1-miles-long streetcar route from its western terminus at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, would include northbound track on N. 5th St. and southbound track on N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. The lines would connect at a station located in or near a city-owned parking lot along W. Wisconsin Ave. between N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and N. 5th St.
Multiple sources indicate that the city would like to see the extension operating by 2020, in time for the potential Democratic National Convention should the city win the bid. The convention center extension would not put the streetcar at the front door of the new Bucks arena, but would bring riders closer and near the edge of a substantial security perimeter.
The Common Council approved a larger extension of the system up what was then 4th Street to the Fiserv Forum in 2016 (the street was since closed and absorbed by the Bucks’ campus). That $40 million plan would rely on an even split of federal and local funds. The local funds would come from a tax-incremental financing district supported by the development of the city-owned parking lot.
That extension has now failed to win multiple federal grants under the discretionary BUILD (formerly TIGER) program administered by President Donald Trump. Under Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao the annual grant program, which receives substantially more applications than it has funding for, now allocates substantially more funding to rural highways. A single streetcar project was funded in the latest round of awards.
The city had success with the stimulus-era program under the administration of President Barack Obama, winning $14.2 million in 2015 to extend the streetcar to the lakefront. That extension will open in 2020. It took multiple rounds of applications for the city to secure the lakefront line grant.
The city also won an $800,000 grant to study land-use planning around future extensions to Bronzeville and Walker’s Point under Obama. A final report on that study was presented in November to the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. Downtown alderman and streetcar advocate Robert Bauman used the presentation to quiz Department of Public Works representative Karen Dettmer publicly on the city’s plans to expand the streetcar.
“Now we have this complete, so we’re in a position to apply for money, what are we waiting for?” asked Bauman. “Our concentration right now is on the 4th Street extension,” said Dettmer. Department of City Development planner Monica Wauck Smith told Bauman: “Doing this study actually helps us score better with the [Federal Transit Administration].” To which an obviously pleased Bauman responded: “Bingo.”
Said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs: “My support for the streetcar is largely based on how quickly it can go north.” Bauman said Coggs and others should put pressure on the Barrett administration to keep moving on the extensions.
Bauman, in response to a question from Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II, tipped his hand on how the city could fund the convention center expansion without waiting for federal funds. “We’re using tax incremental financing to go two and a half blocks.” The city would use the new revenue generated by property tax payments on a redeveloped parking lot. The city has solicited proposals for the lot in recent years, but did not move forward with any of the proposals because of their request for an additional subsidy.
The short expansion isn’t without precedent. Portland, which operates one of the nation’s most successful streetcar systems, has built multiple extensions shorter than a half mile.
Barrett’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
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