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Streetcar project budget challenges Milwaukee planners

Sean Ryan
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Milwaukee will ride its $60 million budget as far as it will go for the first phase of constructing the city’s new streetcar system.

“We’ll look at every way possible to squeeze the most mileage out of the routes we have,” said Mark Kaminski, project manager for the consultant team helping the city plan the project.

Most of the money in the project is for building the track, the overhead electric lines and the passenger stops. But the city also must draw from the same pot money to buy eight streetcars and construct a maintenance building for them.

Milwaukee could save money by buying used streetcars. The two new models the city is considering cost between $3 million and $4 million apiece. But there’s an opportunity to buy used cars from Toronto, which bought 200 new streetcars to replace the 1973 models in its system.

But the used cars will need a tune-up that may drive their true cost beyond the estimated $1 million to $2 million. The old cars are farther off the ground than the new models, so Milwaukee either would have to build ramps on the cars or on sidewalks at the passenger stops so the cars are accessible to people with disabilities, said Jeff Mantes, Milwaukee commissioner of public works.

The used streetcars also run on Canadian-based electrical systems and have tires matching Canadian width requirements, so the systems and wheels would need to be replaced, Kaminski said. He said the engineering team is crunching the numbers to see if the used cars are truly cheaper than buying new, he said.

“There are a lot of unknowns here,” Kaminski said. “But it is feasible, so it’s good to present it as an option.”

The city has three options for track routes and on Thursday hosted its last public meeting to collect comments before it selects a preferred route in December or January. Depending on the streets on which the track is built, there are different costs of relocating utilities beneath the road, said City Engineer Jeff Polenske. Depending on which intersections the streetcars run through, there are different costs to creating enough turning room for them, he said.

The per-mile cost to build the first phase of the streetcar system ranges from $20 million to $30 million, more than future phases because the first round of construction includes construction of the maintenance building, Polenske said. The city is scoping out property around the Milwaukee Intermodal Station as a possible location for the new building.

Polenske said city officials are talking to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to see if there is an opportunity to use land WisDOT owns near the station on St. Paul Avenue.

“We’re exploring our opportunities right now,” he said. “Obviously, the central business district in general is pretty built up.”


  1. Placing the maintenance building near the Intermodal makes a lot of sense, and at the meeting they specifically said they were going to go with new cars.

  2. I would assume that a maintenance building is a pretty basic structure with tracks going into it for the street cars so couldn’t they build it under the freeway and use some of that vacant space?

  3. Kenosha has very successfully used ex-Toronto streetcars since 2000 and converted them to American wheel gauge by simply switching to used trucks from ex-Chicago rapid transit cars.

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