Ald. Bob Donovan
Press Release

Proposed streetcar expansion expensive, ill-advised and premature

Alderman Donovan asks one simple question: ‘Where’s the money?’

By - May 2nd, 2019 08:59 am

For many, this is a really good time to live in Milwaukee.

There are billions of dollars in new construction going on throughout the downtown, we are scheduled to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, and the Bucks are making a good run in the playoffs.

It should be a time when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder — Common Council, Mayor, and citizens — to ensure this positive energy and growth benefits the entire City.

Why, then, must Mayor Barrett insist on having what will surely be a bruising debate on a premature extension of his pet project, the Milwaukee Streetcar?

Forget about the fact that the first circulator loop isn’t done yet. The Couture about which so much ink was spilled remains months behind schedule and little more than a good intention at the moment.

Forget about the fact that, for all the excitement about “The Hop”, the system for counting its passengers broke only a few weeks ago and we still don’t know how many people are willing to ride it when it’s free, much less when there’s a fare required.

Forget about the fact that the federal government has repeatedly refused the Mayor’s requests for grant money for streetcar extensions leaving all of us not in on his secrets to dread how he imagines this extension will be paid for.

What I cannot get over is that, with basic services slipping and neighborhoods crumbling, Mayor Barrett chooses this precious moment of optimism and hope to pursue the most divisive policy imaginable. I am amazed at this.

More about the Milwaukee Streetcar

For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.

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6 thoughts on “Proposed streetcar expansion expensive, ill-advised and premature”

  1. Paul Nannis says:

    You might do your constituents a favor by sending out positive releases instead of the usual cranky old man ones you seem to relish.

  2. Steven Midthun says:


  3. Trmott says:

    There’s no doubt in my mind that routes like those proposed, whether serviced by rail or smaller and more frequent buses, would be of greater and more widespread benefit to the people who really NEED better and more convenient and efficient transportation into downtown for work, education, entertainment and recreation, religious and cultural events and more. What we have now is essentially pointless, and I live right in the middle of it.

    I’d be most interested in learning why the passenger counting system is inoperable. If I were the Mayor, I’d be fine with that. While he’s office up in City Hall, I get to see the ridership with my own two eyes several times a day. Each monstrous streetcar has a capacity of 120 or so. By eyeballing and counting, my guesstimate is that typically there are no more than 12 to 15 on board, and MOST of the time it seems like half of that number. Late night, when lots of people are Uber-ing or walking home to their apartments and condos the train goes by with 1 or 2 or 3 people on board. Plus a driver who must be totally bored doing such mind-numbing work. Where are all those millennials, anyway? Are they the ones oohing and ahhhing as the near-vacant trains pass by ever few minute/

    Without ridership data, we’re left with the Mayorial PR about how great this is. “Exceeding expectations” (whose, based on what?). “Very successful” (measured how?). Is that the data we’ll be presented as taxpayers in order to assess how popular and, therefore, essential Phase I is before we dig up miles of roads for the next phase(s)?

    In a mere few minutes I’ve dreamed up alternative (stopgap?) ways to tally up ridership, but I won’t bore you with those, as this has gotten too long already. It’s not that I’m so bright — any two or three of us over coffee could come up with even more and better ways. Suffice it to say, “where there’s a will there’s a way”. I don’t think the powers-that-be even want to know or want us to know ridership statistics. An uninformed electorate makes any snow job much easier to pull off.

  4. TransitRider says:

    Trmott says: “I’d be most interested in learning why the passenger counting system is inoperable.”

    The counters had a glitch that caused them to stop counting after 10,000 miles, which each vehicle reached between February and March. Once that vehicle hit 10,000 miles, its counter stopped recording anything. That glitch has been fixed and passengers are again being counted.

    Before construction, the streetcar’s ridership estimates were 588,800/year, or about 11,300/week. Since the streetcar operates 912 (one-way) trips/week, each trip needs fewer than 13 passengers ON AVERAGE to meet those numbers.

    That’s not 13 passengers at every point, or even at any one point, but 13 passengers boarding somewhere on that run. For example, if 6 board at the Amtrak station and leave at Wisconsin Avenue, and another 6 people board at Cathedral Square and ride to end of the line at Farwell, that trip carries 13 passengers, but never more than 7 at once and at times (from Wisconsin Avenue to Cathedral Square) no passengers at all.

    The streetcar is meeting or exceeding its initial ridership projections. But more importantly, it’s triggering a massive downtown building boom (which brings in more taxes which bring in more than the streetcar’s operating subsidy).

  5. Trmott says:

    “It’s triggering a massive downtown building boom”, you say. I remain skeptical about that; I think that’s PR (propaganda, basically) and entirely speculative. In the two decades I’ve lived downtown, new buildings have kept going up apace, and others converted to better use, starting long before we had a train on the drawing board. Why would this train “trigger” anything? Downtown development is an ongoing thing in a good economy, regardless. I figure our condo building alone produces $350-$400,000 yearly in property taxes paid by owners. Like all the other big and luxury condos in the downtown and Lower East Side, the train has had nothing whatsoever to do with any of them being built. Do you have better data than mine, which is admittedly seat-of-the-pants SWAG?

    As a retired business owner and management consultant, I cannot envision a private sector business study or even a key meeting re:a major strategic decision (start up, expand, borrow, relocate, IPO, etc) where one of the key considerations was the presence/absence of the streetcar route. We’re not exactly talking Grand Central Station here, or even the CTA in Chicago.

    Serious question: So the train’s anticipated usage was 13 people “per run” while people are riding FREE, which means we’d expect fewer than 10 people on board at a time, on average. Maybe 30 or 40 on board at the very apex? Why the 120-seat train, with room for (30?) more standing? A train or a dedicated bus with 1/3 the capacity would seem perfectly sized — cheaper to buy, less maintenance, less energy used to move it, less space needed on the roadways for its length and fewer lost street parking places for its loading platforms.

    Some somebodies wanted “us” to have a train, whether we needed one or not. They seemed all too ready to spend other peoples’ money for it. When my brother’s family rolls into town from Nebraska this summer, I’ll see how he feels about contributing his tax dollars for this. I think it’s kind of embarrassing to be among those with their noses so deeply in the trough.

    The poles (with “danger” signs mounted) alongside the streets are hideous, and they’re just to support the ugly overhead wires. And, have you noticed the additional idling autos lined up behind a stopped train and those waiting for the longer cycle of a stoplight go change to green due to accommodating the train. I have.

  6. TransitRider says:


    Portland basically re-invented the American streetcar when it started a system from scratch in the late 1990s (opened in 2001)—America’s first new streetcar in perhaps a century. Several years later they studied its effect on development and found a strong correlation between development and distance (in blocks) from the tracks.

    After Portland’s success, other cities built similar, short, downtown streetcars. Most of them (Seattle, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Washington DC, Detroit, and now Milwaukee) have seen an upturn in development near the tracks, although none have analyzed it as much as Portland. Perhaps all this new development is a coincidence, but I don’t think so. In Cincinnati (whose streetcar opened in 2016), for example, the “Over the Rhine” neighborhood was depressed for decades but has recently seen an investment upturn.

    Streetcars DO affect strategic decisions, although often indirectly through issues like pedestrian traffic and parking.

    In Portland, the owner of a major retailer (Powell’s books, America’s largest independent bookstore), counted pedestrian traffic past his store (on the streetcar line) before and after the streetcar opened: (3/hour in 2001, 938/hour in 2008). Streetcars increase pedestrian volumes and make sites more attractive for retail.

    In the Milwaukee Streetcar’s Environmental Assessment document, the City cited a parking problem addressed by the streetcar:

    “The plan also supports the streetcar to reduce the need for parking. Parking is often a limiting factor
    for development in downtown Milwaukee because financial institutions are reluctant to provide financing for developments that do not include structured parking. This is a particular impediment to the reuse of historic buildings that lack on-site parking.” (Environmental Assessment, Page 26)

    The City wanted to discourage developers from buying two adjoining historic buildings (each undervalued because it lacks parking) and razing one to provide parking for the other. When this happens, not only do we lose a grand old building, but we make downtown less attractive (asphalt parking lots are even uglier than overhead streetcar wires) and less walkable due to lower overall density. The streetcar acts as a parking shuttle connecting existing surplus downtown parking to buildings lacking it.

    Streetcars do NOT have anywhere near 120 seats; I think they actually have fewer seats than some MCTS buses, but streetcars do have LOTS of standing room—much more than buses. Streetcars have a very smooth ride without unexpected turns which makes standing on a streetcar much safer and more pleasant than standing on a bus. (Sort of like standing on an elevator.) That standing room will be needed for large events (like the NML and DNC conventions) and—after the line is extended—for events at Fiserv Forum.

    Using smaller vehicles does NOT save money, since most operating expense is driver salary/benefits and I have yet to see how a half-size vehicle can get by with only half a driver! And besides, if you purchased a fleet of small vehicles for less-busy times, you would STILL need larger vehicles for busy times. This would INCREASE costs by buying and maintaining nearly twice as many vehicles!

    Streetcars last longer and cost less to maintain than buses. Buses are replaced about every 12 years, but a streetcar should last at least 30 (in some US cities, streetcars average over 50 years old!) Why? Buses (and cars) are literally shaken apart by rough roads and vibrating internal combustion engines, neither of which applies to streetcars.

    Streetcars need less maintenance because they are simpler than buses. They use no transmissions, differentials or driveshafts, catalytic converters, antifreeze, motor oil, urea (google “diesel urea” or “diesel exhaust fluid”), complex suspensions or steering mechanisms. They have no exhaust pipes or mufflers to rust out. Their steel wheels last for decades and require FAR less maintenance than rubber tires. (Steel wheels are also 100% recyclable; old rubber tires often linger forever in junkyards.)

    Some other (brief) responses to your concerns:

    •Yes, streetcars stop in traffic lanes to board and discharge passengers, and this is different from buses (which pull out of traffic). If you don’t like it, just use another street (or go around it)! (Besides, there are more people on the streetcar than in your car, so why should you expect priority?)

    • Yes, sometimes cars wait at red lights for streetcars, but cars also wait for other cars, and do so THOUSANDS of times more than for streetcars. Streetcars (and buses) are designed to remove cars from roads, and cars are what causes most traffic congestion.

    • I doubt that streetcar stops are appreciably longer than bus stops. A streetcar stop need only be as long as the streetcar itself (20 meters or about 65.6 feet) while a bus stop must be as long as the bus (40 feet) PLUS enough space for the bus to turn while pulling into and out of that space. (Actually, Milwaukee streetcar platforms could be much shorter—just the distance from the front door to the back, both of which are in the streetcar’s center segment.)

    • The passenger count estimates issued before the streetcar was built assumed a $1 fare (together with passes at $2/day and $250/year). The Potawatomi money (which led to the temporary free fare) came later.

    • Nebraska gets its share of federal transportation funding, too, so there’s no reason for your Cornhusker brother to feel put upon.

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