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Milwaukee rolls out streetcar plan (VIDEO)

By Sean Ryan

There is no regional transit authority to help run and pay for a proposed $95.8 million Milwaukee streetcar system, so the city is advancing plans on its own.

The solid blue line on the map shows where Milwaukee planners propose to build a new downtown streetcar system. If the project costs are lower than estimated, or if the city is successful in securing more federal grants, the system will be extended to include the parts shown with a dotted line. (Image courtesy of the city of Milwaukee)

The solid blue line on the map shows where Milwaukee planners propose to build a new downtown streetcar system. If the project costs are lower than estimated, or if the city is successful in securing more federal grants, the system will be extended to include the parts shown with a dotted line. (Image courtesy of the city of Milwaukee)

The city unveiled a proposal Wednesday to build a new streetcar that would run from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station on St. Paul Avenue, up Broadway and through the downtown to the citys lower-east side.

Such systems can make downtown offices more attractive to tenants and spur development, but they work best when combined with other forms of public transit, said Stu Wangard, president and principal of Wangard Partners Inc., a Milwaukee-based developer.

The city needs federal money to cover the streetcar system’s construction and equipment costs. Milwaukee has proposed a smaller system that would use a $54.9 million federal grant the city already has, plus $9.7 million that would be raised through tax-incremental financing districts, said City Engineer Jeff Polenske. But the city can build a larger system if it receives a $25 million federal grant Milwaukee applied for this year, he said.

Polenske said the city will not receive a response to its grant application until June, but is asking for local approval for the full project so engineering can be completed this year.

“We’re trying to be as aggressive as we can to advance our project,” he said, “and make sure that we can keep it moving.”

But with the state Legislature’s failure to pass legislation to create an RTA in Milwaukee County, the city is on its own to find ways to pay operating costs of up to $3.85 million, Polenske said. The city would have a better chance of integrating the streetcar and bus systems through combined fares, for example, if an RTA is created to operate and pay for both systems, he said.

“That definitely is the long-term goal for this,” he said.

An RTA also would settle any remaining concerns from Milwaukee County officials about a new transit system in town, said Supervisor Christopher Larson. Milwaukee County has a representative on the planning board that, on Thursday, will be asked to approve the city’s preliminary streetcar plan.

Larson said he supports the streetcar but acknowledged the long-running concern that a new streetcar could compete with the bus system for state and federal operating grants.

“We don’t want to have competition between these systems,” he said. “I think that’s a recipe for disaster.”

The federal money for the project comes from $91.5 million that was set aside in 1999 for transit projects in Milwaukee County. The money has not been used because city and county officials for years debated whether to spend it on a streetcar system or on the county buses.

Then, in March 2009, Congress voted to split the money, giving $54.9 million to the city for the streetcars and $36.6 million to the county, which will spend the money on new buses.

If the planning board approves the streetcar system Thursday, the city can advance plans for the project and ask the Milwaukee Common Council to sign off on the construction project in late 2010 or early 2011, Polenske said.

He said Milwaukee initially would pay to operate its streetcar system using a $1 per-person fare, state and federal grants, advertising revenue, city parking fees and private donations. He said it would not compete directly with the county for money.

Wangard said a new streetcar system can be a big boost for Milwaukee, particularly if it makes it easier for people to get around without a car.

“Anytime you are looking at a suburban property versus an urban property, parking becomes an issue,” he said. “Yes, in the suburbs parking is free. Yet you don’t have the same amenities as you do downtown.”

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