Talking Transit: Milwaukee's new transit investments - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: Milwaukee's new transit investments

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Milwaukee, Wisc., once boasted a local rail system almost as extensive as Chicago’s, its neighbor to the south. The city’s streetcar network extended along 20 lines, both within the city and to destinations throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Beginning in the 1920s, like many other cities in the United States, Milwaukee began making the transition to bus service; in 1958, the city saw its last streetcar run.

In the period since, the use of public transportation in Brew City has steadily declined. While in 1960, 31 percent of Milwaukee residents took a bus to work, by 2014 only 9 percent did, according to U.S. Census data. The lack of frequent, speedy and effective rapid transit surely took its toll. But Milwaukee may finally be making progress in the direction of improving its public transit offerings. In the process, it may teach Chicago a thing or two about how to invest in better rail and bus service.

The return of the streetcar

Twenty-five years after the City received funding from Congress to support a better transit system and more than 5 years after planning begun, the city approved a new streetcar line in 2015.

Milwaukee joins other Midwest cities like Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City and St. Louis, all of which have either completed or are investing in major new streetcar lines. Each has been funded in part by federal grants designed to encourage innovative approaches to transit provision.

Milwaukee Streetcar

Milwaukee Streetcar initial route map

The Milwaukee streetcar, which will be under construction this fall, is a $128 million project designed to connect the recently reconstructed Intermodal Station (featuring Amtrak trains to Chicago as well as local and intercity bus service) with the central business district and the lakefront. Construction financing was secured primarily through the aforementioned federal funding and a $14.2 million TIGER grant released by Washington in 2015. This initial project will open in two stages in 2018 and 2019, and include a station that runs through the ground floor of a brand-new, 44-story tower on the lakefront. It should be quite the sight.

Of course, like many streetcar systems, this one will likely suffer from slow speeds due to having to share lanes with automobiles. Yet the city is already planning another phase of the project that would remedy that issue.

Milwaukee Streetcar

A rendering of a streetcar in central Milwaukee

A $40 million Fourth Street extension of the line would head north from the Intermodal Station to the convention center and the future Milwaukee Bucks arena. Unlike the first phase of the project, 90 percent of the right-of-way for this one will include dedicated lanes, guaranteeing faster running times and fewer delays. In addition, the streetcars will run without needing overhead wires—using batteries that recharge at stations instead.

Though the City of Milwaukee has agreed to fund $20 million of this extension project, it will only move forward if the project wins a matching federal grant. If it does, this extension could open by 2020. And the city has other extensions also in consideration.

New bus rapid transit lines

Milwaukee has not constrained its public transit ambitions to streetcar development. Like Chicago, which has been flirting with bus rapid transit for years, Milwaukee’s leaders see value in improving bus service. And indeed, as the Metropolitan Planning Council’s advocacy has demonstrated for years, bus rapid transit is a truly effective tool for speeding commutes and increasing access to jobs—and doing so at a limited cost.

One major corridor in central Milwaukee connects downtown with the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center and Milwaukee County Research Park along Wisconsin Avenue and Bluemound Road. The corridor makes for a perfect bus rapid transit right of way, since the streets are relatively wide. The city has approved a 9-mile east-west route running along these streets for implementation over the next few years. Following best practice, the project will included dedicated lanes for buses, allowing them to speed past traffic.

As with its streetcar projects, Milwaukee is hoping for a federal grant to aid in about three-quarters of the project’s $45 million cost. If the application is successful, service could operate frequently—every 10 minutes during most of the day. And riders are expected to respond positively, with between 7,250 and 9,250 new users joining the system. 6,700 fewer cars would travel on the road each day.

Lessons for Chicago

What’s interesting about Milwaukee is its willingness to invest in both bus rapid transit and streetcar projects, simultaneously. Each of the city’s efforts will fulfill unique roles; the streetcar lines will improve connectivity in the city’s core, while the rapid bus route will speed travel along a major regional arterial into downtown. This is the right approach: Cities should choose the mode of transit that makes the most sense given the people it is supposed to serve.

Milwaukee’s municipal commitment to its projects is also a worthy model. Yes, the city is relying on federal grants to support the construction of its new lines. But it is also spending local resources on the projects it cares most about. Direct funding for infrastructure, of course, is the best way to actually get projects off the ground.

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