Graham Kilmer
Transportation

BRT Line Delayed Until 2022

Trump administration mismanagement of federal grant delays county Bus Rapid Transit.

By - Jul 11th, 2020 02:25 pm
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Rendering of Milwaukee County Bus Rapid Transit.

Rendering of Milwaukee County Bus Rapid Transit.

Milwaukee County’s long planned East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project is moving forward, key officials say, but expected completion has been delayed again until at least 2022.

A year ago at this time, planners working on the project were wrapping up design and engineering plans for the new project. Once those were finished they hoped to finalize a key grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for approximately $40 million, which would cover approximately 79 percent of the $55 million project.

But as Urban Milwaukee reported, the BRT project has been plagued with mismanagement by President Donald Trump‘s administration of a key federal grant program. leading to delays and cost overruns in Milwaukee, and around the rest of the country.

In July 2019, planners were saying construction would begin in Spring 2020 and the line would be up and running by 2021. Well, Spring 2020 has come and passed. And now, planners aren’t expecting construction until Spring 2021 and the line being open for service only by 2022.

The project is the first bus rapid transit project in Milwaukee County. It will be a 9-mile bus line running from downtown Milwaukee along Wisconsin Avenue out to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. It’s high-frequency service should provide shorter travel times along a route that is close to thousands of county residents that don’t own vehicles.

In the past 12 months, the project has advanced through some key steps. But the timeline for completion has once again been pushed back.

An investigation by the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure found the FTA was poorly managing its Capital Improvements Grant program. The FTA has been dragging its feet providing policy guidance for grant agreements and delaying decision making, leading to the delays in the county’s BRT project.

The county’s project was included in the federal budget in March 2019. And three months later in July, project consultants reported they were expecting the grant to be awarded in time for construction to begin in Spring 2020. That grant agreement, called a Small Starts Grant Agreement or SSGA, still hasn’t been finalized.

And as Urban Milwaukee previously reported, Milwaukee County Department of Transportation officials received no policy guidance from the FTA on how to develop their SSGA for most of 2019. In March 2019, in response to the House of Representatives’ investigation, John Rodgers, with the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), wrote an email to the County Executive’s office and MCDOT leadership saying, “Clearly we are not the only ones expressing concern about the FTA’s decision-making process.” In December 2019, Donna Brown-Martin, director of MCDOT, told the county board’s committee on Transportation, Public Works and Transit, “Only recently, within the last month, have we been getting any kind of input back from FTA.”

In May, Trump tweeted that the BRT project had been awarded $40.9 million. The tweet announced the appropriation of the funds that had been allocated in 2019. “That was a key step in the next steps in our process, which will be a Small Starts Grant Agreement,” Ashley Booth, a consultant on the project from HNTB, told the transit committee Wednesday.

On Wednesday, planners told the county committee the FTA had performed a risk-review for the project and “made some significant progress moving forward toward the execution of a Small Starts Grant Agreement.”

Once finalized, the grant agreement will come back to the county board for approval; planners hope this will happen by this fall.

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