Jeramey Jannene

Council Holds Streetcar Extension

Streetcar proponents become opponents, push for longer extension to Walker's Point.

By - May 21st, 2019 01:31 pm
The Hop streetcar extension map. Map from City of Milwaukee.

The Hop streetcar extension map. Map from City of Milwaukee.

The central debate around Milwaukee’s streetcar system appears to have changed, going from “should it be built” to “is it long enough?” But that brings with it a host of other issues that have delayed a $160 million proposal to extend the system.

As part of reviewing Mayor Tom Barrett‘s proposed three-mile streetcar extension to Bronzeville, the Historic Third Ward and northern Walker’s Point, members of the Milwaukee Common Council have raised concerns about the length of the route’s southern leg, the feasibility of also funding central city business development and anti-displacement funds (in response to gentrification) and the administration’s ability to generate additional private support for the streetcar.

The council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee unanimously voted to hold the mayor’s proposal Tuesday, which Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske said could result in an extension to the Wisconsin Center not being complete by the Democratic National Convention in July 2020.

Council members and administration officials will attempt to reach a compromise over the next week in advance of the May 29th Common Council meeting. “I’m trying to figure out a happy medium,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, who has championed the extension north into her district, but said she respects the concerns of her colleagues.

“If it doesn’t get built and there is no Vel R. Phillips Plaza, that’s on the mayor,” said longtime streetcar supporter Alderman Robert Bauman.

As part of the longer extension, Barrett proposes spending $28 million immediately to extend the existing route from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station to the Wisconsin Center and building a large plaza on a city-owned parking lot along W. Wisconsin Ave.

How Far Into Walker’s Point?

Bauman, who said he was prepared to oppose the $160 million expansion plan if need be, introduced an amendment earlier in the meeting to extend Barrett’s proposed study south from S. 1st St. and W. Pittsburgh Ave. to S. 6th St. and W. National Ave. via S. 1st St. and W. National Ave.

Bauman and Ald. Jose G. Perez, who represents the area and has championed a longer extension into Walker’s Point, were the sole members of the committee to vote for the amendment. “We’re arguing over 8/10ths of a mile and not whether to build it or not, but studying it,” said Bauman who said the argument over the study could cause the council to reject the entire project. He characterized the Barrett administration’s handling of the matter as “incompetent.”

Barrett’s proposal includes $500,000 to identify and conduct preliminary work on a route through Walker’s Point, while a northern route via N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. (former N. 4th St.) in Downtown and N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. in Bronzeville to W. North Ave. would have substantial “project development” work done, including engineering and planning.

Perez questioned why the [Transit Oriented Development (TOD) study] wrapped up without choosing which street in Walker’s Point on which to run the streetcar.

“The reason the study ended with dotted lines on the south end was essentially at your request,” said Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux in response.

The Commissioner said Walker’s Point lacks enough tax-incremental financing districts to fund engineering and planning. “Why we would look at going south the same distance and not know whether we can build it?” asked Marcoux. “There’s no sense putting a map on the table that we don’t know whether we can pay for.”

But Bauman said the plan on the table isn’t the one originally circulated by Barrett. “The original plan ended at Catalano Square in the Historic Third Ward,” said Bauman. “There was not even a gesture of going to Walker’s Point.” It now extends over the Milwaukee River a few blocks south to 1st St. and W. Pittsburgh Ave.

Nancy Hernandez, whose Abrazo Marketing firm performed outreach efforts around the recent TOD study, said there is a consensus on the route through Walker’s Point and it’s what Bauman’s failed amendment proposed.

Hernandez has submitted a letter to the Common Council on the matter that includes the signatures of Tri-City vice president and Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority board chair Ivan Gamboa, Harbor District executive director Lilith Fowler, developer Joshua Jeffers, restauranteurs Russell Rossetto and Scott Johnson, Walker’s Point Association leader Kevin Wondra, Dr. Michele Bria of Journey House, El Rey Foods owner Ernesto Villarreal and others.

The city has relied on incremental, surplus property tax revenue in tax-incremental financing districts to fund the local share of streetcar construction costs. The approximately $80 million city officials believe they would need to apply for a matching federal grant to build the extension, including the $18.3 million proposed today for engineering work, is slated to come from districts where tax revenue is outpacing expectations. The city must close the districts after a maximum of 27 years or if all project debt is paid off. Marcoux said it’s simply luck that so many TIF districts on the north end of downtown are generating big surpluses and are nearing the end of their legal life. For a breakdown of those districts, see our recent article breaking down the funding sources.

Gentrification, Central City Development and Corporate Sponsorship

But the Walker’s Point route isn’t the only thing council members are raising concerns about. Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II, who ultimately made the motion to hold the proposal after over two hours of debate, is pushing for the administration to do more with the proposal. “The development that’s happening Downtown, I want an equal amount in the central city,” said Stamper in an interview after the vote.

Stamper would like also like to see funding of an anti-displacement fund and a central city business development fund. Stamper said a $6 million anti-displacement fund would prevent any displacement due to gentrification for the next 20 years. The central city development fund would be used to kickstart development in other areas of the city. Stamper has also championed the creation of a fund as part of the city’s subsidy to developer Kalan Haywood‘s Ikon Hotel proposal.

“Yes, I’m using this for leverage for investment in the central city,” said Stamper.

Stamper also wants to see more corporate sponsorships, something that’s also a sore spot for Bauman. The city’s 12-year, $10 million corporate sponsorship agreement with Potawatomi Hotel & Casino is among the largest such agreement for a North American streetcar system, but Stamper and Bauman pushed for more.

“It’s not an easy process to garner sponsorship, but there are a lot of interested entities,” said Polenske. He said the Milwaukee Bucks wrapped vehicle has generated increased interest from potential partners the city was already talking to. “This isn’t just sit down and someone writes you a check,” concluded the commissioner.

But who has the city asked? In response to a question from Bauman, Polenske said the city has not asked the Milwaukee Bucks for financial support for the construction of the streetcar line that would run in front of Fiserv Forum, but has asked for operational support.

Bauman, citing a recent report that showed the team’s value has grown nearly threefold since it was sold in 2013, said the city should be asking for the same amount the team is prepared to spend on parking construction. “[They] want to build 2,000 more parking spaces, that’s $70 million,” said Bauman of the Bucks’ Deer District plans.

What Comes Next?

If a compromise between Bauman, Perez, Barrett, Polenske and Marcoux can be reached before May 28th, committee chair Ald. Khalif Rainey intends to call a special meeting to get the proposal back on track.

But the proposal, which would have the city build a $28 million, .4-mile extension and perform $18.8 million worth of engineering and planning work, would still need to find support from the full Common Council.

Council president Ashanti Hamilton, in a brief appearance before the committee, backed the hold. “I want to really say thank you to the committee. I think you brought up some very important points and very important issues that need to be dug into before voting on this matter,” said Hamilton. “Despite the fact that the streetcar has become an ideological litmus test… the truth of the matter it’s a huge investment and it deserves more than one cycle of debate.”

Council members Tony Zielinski, Robert Donovan, Mark Borkowski and Nikiya Dodd have all spoken publicly against the proposed extension. But Zielinski was the only council member to testify outright against the idea of extending the streetcar Tuesday.

The alderman made the claim that the future operations of the vehicle will negatively impact a host of city services, including snow plowing, lead abatement and pothole repair. “We can go right on down the list of city services,” said Zielinski who originally voted for the streetcar in 2011 before later voting against it.

The Bay View alderman and mayoral candidate said the city’s recent change in parking pricing policy is a “backdoor way to get more money they know they’re going to need to operate the project.”

Polenske rejected that claim, saying the switch to market-based pricing was intended to align meter pricing with private downtown parking costs. But Bauman said Zielinski was correct in his assertion that any increased parking revenue would go to fund the streetcar, noting that Barrett was transparent about the use of the parking fund to support operations when it was originally approved.

“I get you want to defeat these files, but what do you propose we do with the existing streetcar?” asked Coggs of Zielinski. “You think we should shut down the current streetcar? We should pull up the tracks?” she added.

After a back-and-forth where Coggs insisted she was asking a simple question and Zielinski was refusing to answer it, the alderman stated: “My proposal is we look at ways we can minimize any impact the streetcar has on the city’s taxpayers.”

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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

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