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Missed connections: Lack of transit options hurting Milwaukee

By: Matt Taub, [email protected]//June 24, 2015//

Missed connections: Lack of transit options hurting Milwaukee

By: Matt Taub, [email protected]//June 24, 2015//

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The METRO Blue Line Bombardier with Minneapolis skyline (image courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit)
The METRO Blue Line Bombardier heads out of downtown Minneapolis recently. Minneapolis has benefited from its light rail system, officials say. (Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit)

Other Midwest cities are running circles — of commuter track — around Milwaukee.

That was the consensus at a transportation and economic development conference held at the University Club in downtown Milwaukee on Tuesday. The event was sponsored by the regional transportation group MetroGo! and featured a range of experts on transportation and economic development, hailing from both Wisconsin and other parts the country.

Officials from Cleveland and Minneapolis said their cities are far ahead of Milwaukee in transportation options and development. On Tuesday, they boasted of recent successes with transit projects, saying the results have been an influx of new residents and businesses.

Mike Fabishak, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, addressed an audience at the University Club Tuesday (Staff photo by Matthew Taub)
Mike Fabishak, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, addresses the audience at the University Club in Milwaukee on Tuesday. (Staff photo by Matthew Taub)

Michael Schipper, deputy general manager of engineering and project management for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, talked about the city’s HealthLine, a bus rapid-transit system that opened in 2008. In bus rapid transit, buses run by themselves in lanes closed off to all other sorts of vehicles, making it similar to a light-rail system.

Of the budget for Cleveland’s bus rapid-transit system, $50 million was set aside for expenses related directly to transportation, and another $150 million was spent on curbs and sidewalks, sewer and water lines, and landscaping.

After the 7.1-mile route was built, 40 percent more travelers were found to be catching rides on the new system than had used a former bus line. The project is also credited with spurring $5.8 billion in transit-related development, according to an April 2013 report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a national group with its headquarters in New York. Schipper said the value of the development spurred by the line is now up to $6.3 billion. Cleveland also has three light-rail systems and one heavy-rail system, all of which connect with HealthLine and other bus routes.

David Frank, director of economic policy and development for Minneapolis, heralded his city’s Blue Line, a light-rail service that takes passengers from the airport to both the Mall of America and Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. Employers, heeding the requests of young employees and hoping to attract more talent, have also sought sites along another light-rail line, some looking to establish new headquarters.

In contrast, Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, a non-profit, independent research organization in Milwaukee, said a myriad of failed or canceled projects have the Milwaukee metro area falling behind its peers. As examples, Henken pointed to a once-planned regional rail system that would have extended south to Illinois and to a high-speed rail line that would have run through the state.

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Still, there is room for optimism. Milwaukee is now developing a 2-mile downtown streetcar project that will connect the city’s central business district with nearby neighborhoods and the downtown’s Intermodal Station – a stop for both trains and buses. An extension to the city’s lakefront is also in the works. And County Executive Chris Abele recently announced plans to explore offering rapid bus service.

Still, not everyone sees an obvious link between transit and economic development. Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the CATO Institute, a libertarian research group in Washington, D.C., has argued that many of the developments supposedly prompted by streetcar and other transit lines were in fact subsidized. O’Toole used as an example Portland, Ore., where officials contend that a streetcar led to billions of dollars of economic growth. Whatever the streetcar’s contribution, O’Toole said, the development was helped along by roughly $800 million in subsequent tax breaks, tax-increment financing and other local subsidies to developers.

Various speakers at Tuesday’s event acknowledged that the development they boasted of came about not only as a result of new transit routes, but through a mixture of zoning and tax incentives, as well. Nonetheless, few expressed regrets about offering incentives, saying the benefits generally outweighed the costs.


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