Graham Kilmer

County Expects Key BRT Grant Soon

Construction could begin by spring 2021.

By - Dec 3rd, 2020 04:33 pm
Rendering of Milwaukee County Bus Rapid Transit.

Rendering of Milwaukee County Bus Rapid Transit.

After years of planning and delays, Milwaukee County officials are expecting to finalize a critical grant agreement with the federal government for the East-West Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT) this month.

The 9-mile bus line will run from downtown Milwaukee along Wisconsin Avenue and W. Bluemound Road out to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa and provide high frequency service with dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority and off bus fare collection. 

There are nearly 70,000 people that live within a half-mile of the BRT corridor, 21% of whom don’t have a vehicle, 37% are minority and 23% live below the poverty line, according to data from MCTS. The planners have projected that the BRT will average more than 9,500 daily rides by 2035.

The plan is to run 11 Battery Electric Buses on the BRT. But during the 2021 budget process, a budget amendment to study the costs and benefits of BEB’s versus Hybrid buses was passed by the board. And one of the sponsors, Sup. Jason Haas, had previously asked MCTS Managing Director Dan Boehm if it would be possible to change the county’s policy “midstream” and put hybrid buses on the BRT line, indicating commitment to the BEB policy could be softening.

Securing a federal Small Starts Grant from the Federal Transit Administration is key to realizing the project. The grant will cover $40.9 million, approximately 79%, of the project costs. The remaining 21% will be covered by the county.

The county hasn’t received the grant agreement yet, but it expects to execute one this month. The project team has begun its search for a construction contractor, and it is preparing to begin interviewing manufacturers for its purchase of 11 BEB’s.

The grant is also the source of delay.

The project was included in the federal budget in 2019. In May of this year, President Donald Trump tweeted that the project was awarded $40.9 million through the US Department of Transportation.

In summer 2019, planners expected to finalize a grant agreement by the end of the year and start construction in spring 2020. But delays in the grant process delayed the project by a year. And now construction is expected to begin in spring 2021. With revenue service beginning in fall 2022.

As Urban Milwaukee has reported, delays have been caused by mismanagement of the grant program at the FTA. For example, the agency was failing to communicate grant criteria and, in some cases, changing project requirements after they had already been met, leaving planners in the dark as to how they would secure this grant pivotal to the project.

An investigation of the Capital Improvements Grant (CIG) program — of which the Small Starts program is a part — by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, found the FTA caused project delays and cost overruns throughout the country.

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