Jeramey Jannene
Transportation

Will Streetcar be Extended by the DNC?

Mayor, aldermen differ on whether rail extension can be completed for national convention.

By - Jun 18th, 2019 04:13 pm
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The Hop streetcar extension map. Map from City of Milwaukee.

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

A proposal to extend the city’s streetcar system to the convention center, Bronzeville, and northern Walker’s Point remains stuck in the Milwaukee Common Council, imperiling the ability of the city to complete an extension and new public plaza in time for the Democratic National Convention in July 2020.

Tuesday morning’s council meeting marked the completion of the second three-week council cycle where the $52 million proposal has gone without a vote since first being introduced on May 7th. The plan would fund construction of a .4 mile extension to the convention center and new public plaza named after political trailblazers Vel Phillips. Funds would also be committed for planning work on extensions to Fiserv Forum, Bronzeville and Walker’s Point. The city would enter a federal grant program to secure funding to build the longer extensions by 2024.

Mayor Tom Barrett called the plan “bold, yet fiscally responsible” in a late May press conference encouraging the council to act. Administration officials told Urban Milwaukee that the biggest concern is the lead time required to order the supplies, chiefly the curved steel rails, to build the expansion to the convention center. Construction was planned to start this fall.

No one is saying what the official cut-off date is. Barrett, in an interview Tuesday afternoon, said conversations with city engineers indicate that window is quickly closing. Sources have said it’s an ongoing negotiation with key suppliers.

“We haven’t gotten anything firm to tell us some of these deadlines are something we should worry about,” said council president Ashanti Hamilton in an interview Tuesday. Hamilton said he doesn’t want an artificial timeline on something he says needs to be done right.

“It’s pretty amazing that time is not of the essence for some people,” said Barrett Tuesday afternoon. He said getting the project done in time for the DNC would be a great way to show federal officials the city can get big projects done and is deserving of more federal funds. He also said the plaza would be a great way to honor Phillips, who holds a long list of honors for being the first female or first African American elected to a number of Milwaukee and Wisconsin positions including alderwoman, judge and Secretary of State.

Hamilton, who is considering a run for mayor, said progress has been made regarding the concerns of his colleagues. “This cycle we’re seeing some traction with some attention that has been paid to it,” said the veteran alderman. Barrett also said that “a good conversation” has been held in the past week and he remains committed to addressing issues raised by Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II and others with regards to displacement.

Stamper said he wants to see three funds created in conjunction with the streetcar extension. He would like like to see funding of an anti-displacement fund, a job training 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. “Yes, I’m using this for leverage for investment in the central city,” Stamper told Urban Milwaukee in an early May interview.

Hamilton said that first on his list of things needing to be addressed is “a package deal” to make sure not just that the streetcar gets to more neighborhoods, but that an anti-displacement program is funded and a neighborhood reinvestment fund are created. “With the attention and commitment of redeveloping Downtown, there are ways for us to be creative in diverting some of those resources through that process to neighborhood development projects,” said Hamilton. Barrett said legal restrictions on the city might prevent some of those efforts from moving forward as desired, but he’s open to working on them with the council.

“We’re hoping to be able to cross those T’s and dot those I’s next cycle. I’m hoping the administration is amenable to that effort,” said Hamilton.

Barrett offered a pessimistic take. “It’s pretty disconcerting that there are so many different factions,” said the mayor.

Council members Robert Bauman and Jose G. Perez have pushed for the engineering study of an extension to Walker’s Point to be extended from its current planned terminus at S. 1st St. and W. Pittsburgh Ave. to S. 6th St. and W. National Ave. Administration officials have contended the shorter route was due to concerns expressed by Perez regarding the proper route through Walker’s Point and a lack of available funding from area tax-incremental financing districts. Barrett said Monday the proposal would add $30 million to the cost of the project, including $7 million for engineering, when only $20 million is available from nearby TIF districts.

What about just borrowing the remaining $10 million? “I don’t see that as a way to address the concerns I have,” said the mayor, who has championed the streetcar as an economic development tool funded by projects along the route.

Barrett called the investment as it is proposed the largest infrastructure investment in the city’s neighborhoods in history.

Bauman contends that things would have already moved forward if Barrett had simply proposed a longer extension into Walker’s Point in the first place. “I’ve never been more pessimistic in my 27 years of transit advocacy,” said Bauman. “I think there is a high probability this is dead.” And who is to blame?”This is totally on the mayor,” Bauman insists.

The downtown and near west side alderman expressed frustration with responses from Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske that there hasn’t been a request made to the Milwaukee Bucks to support streetcar capital costs, even though the line would run in front of the team’s new arena. He also expressed frustration that there is no plan B being considered if the proposed 44-story The Couture apartment tower doesn’t move forward on the already approved lakefront extension. The city needs to open the line by the end of 2020 to meet a federal grant deadline. “I’m still optimistic that will happen,” said Barrett.

Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee chair Alderman Khalif Rainey expressed optimism things could move forward. “I do not believe a resolution has been reached, but I do feel that it’s important that the item be heard. I do want to give those who are in favor or opposition a chance to come to the table and express themselves in the near future,” said Rainey. “I’m hopeful that we can schedule the item in the near future.” The committee is scheduled is to meet on July 2nd and July 23rd before the council’s annual August recess.

Vel Phillips Plaza Renderings

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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.

2 thoughts on “Transportation: Will Streetcar be Extended by the DNC?”

  1. Thomas Martinsen says:

    His Honor the Mayor’s perceived pessimism is realism to my ear. “There are too many factions.” Our political leaders and others need to unite to extend the streetcar line at least as far as the Vel Phillips Plaza before the Democrats convene here next year.

  2. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Correction: I missed a word in the above post. I should have written “the PROPOSED Vel Phillips Plaza.

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