Jeramey Jannene

Streetcar Study Draws Controversy

Study of Walker’s Point extension moves forward.

By - Jul 27th, 2021 01:13 pm
2021 streetcar expansion map. Map from the City of Milwaukee - Department of City Development.

2021 streetcar expansion map. Map from the City of Milwaukee – Department of City Development.

A proposal to spend $250,000 on an engineering study of how the streetcar could be extended south into Walker’s Point drew surprise opposition on Tuesday when the full Common Council reviewed the proposal.

“Was this discussed at committee as far as feasibility, affordability and the future?” asked Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II.

“Yes, it was discussed at ZND,” said zoning committee chair Ald. Jose G. Perez. The study is part of a larger proposal to invest in traffic calming improvements along S. 6th St. and W. Mineral St.

The funding comes from an overperforming tax incremental financing district that was created to fund the successful narrowing of S. 5th St. A total of $900,000 would be allocated for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. The streetcar engineering study would receive $250,000.

“This is to develop the information you can then all criticize and say you don’t want to support,” said committee member Ald. Robert Bauman after a number of his colleagues spoke against the proposal. “Nobody is planning a groundbreaking. Nobody is laying rail. Nobody is cutting up the streets.”

He explained that because the funding came from a TIF district, no city services or funds would be shortchanged. State TIF law allows the city to exceed levy limits to recoup the increased revenue otherwise temporarily sequestered in the district.

Bauman said not performing the study would be short-sighted given that when the streetcar was approved, by Stamper and others, the longterm vision was to extend it.

“That sounds nice and sweet. But you don’t plan something unless you plan on doing it,” said Stamper. He said he would not vote for streetcar funding until more research is done on displacement and tax increases.

The council ultimately approved the TIF spending proposal on a 10-5 vote. Joining Stamper in opposition were Nikiya Dodd, Khalif Rainey, Mark Borkowski and Scott Spiker.

“It is not surprising that I am not and never will be supportive of the streetcar,” said Borkowski, who spoke against the streetcar in his council welcome speech after winning a special election in 2015.

Spiker said he has concerns about using parking revenue to support the system’s operations. He said the streetcar riders were often wealthier while those paying parking tickets were not, but acknowledged extensions are intended to serve more Milwaukeeans.

“If we are going to spend money on the streetcar I have no objection to bringing it south,” said the far southside alderman while emphasizing the “if.” He said he supported an airport extension if the city was committed to extending the system south. But such airport extensions in other cities are often low ridership and/or primarily intended to serve higher-income riders. The bus lines that currently serve the airport are primarily used by area employees.

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs cautioned that her vote for the study wasn’t an automatic yes vote in the future for an extension. She has previously supported a northern extension to Fiserv Forum and Bronzeville.

Why The Study?

When the proposal was before the zoning committee, there was an extensive debate on why the Department of City Development wanted to conduct the study.

“This really catches up the south side expansion to the North Side,” said DCD economic development specialist Dan Casanova. He said the study would identify engineering concerns, including underground utilities and bridge clearances, to enable a more accurate cost estimate to be created for actually building the extension.

A 2019 proposal would have stopped the extension at the intersection of S. 1st St. and W. Pittsburgh Ave., the northeast corner of Walker’s Point, because of engineering and political uncertainty about the alignment going further south. It was to include a study of a future extension from W. Pittsburgh Ave. to W. National Ave.

Perez, who represents Walker’s Point, raised concerns with the southern extension not going far enough in the 2019 plan, which, along with unrelated concerns from other council members, effectively halted Mayor Tom Barrett’s 3.6-mile, $160 million expansion plan. Much of that expansion would have run through Westown, going past Fiserv Forum before heading towards W. North Ave. via N. Martin Luther King Jr Dr.

Casanova said engineering work is effectively complete to extend the streetcar north to W. Wisconsin Ave. and is 75% complete on an extension to Fiserv Forum. An extension further north to Bronzeville is not as far along.

“It is my understanding that it is the city’s intention to go north and south effectively simultaneously,” said Bauman at the meeting, addressing a concern that Alderwoman Coggs said she has heard from constituents that the south side was leapfrogging the north side extension.

Casanova said a change in a federal funding formula for transit grants would have the Federal Transit Administration covering 80% of the cost instead of 50%.

“We want to be in a good position to apply for those funds,” said Casanova.

For more on the traffic calming portion of the proposal, see our coverage from July 20.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Stamper as a member of the zoning committee. He hasn’t served on the committee since 2020.

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

Categories: Transportation, Weekly

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