Milwaukee, which was once served by an extensive street railway and interurban system that was among the best in the country, has, since the early 1980s, been struggling with declining bus ridership, increasing freeway congestion, accelerating suburban sprawl, deteriorating urban neighborhoods, and the growing problem of connecting low income central city residents, who frequently do not own cars, with jobs in the suburbs. To address these concerns, a major transportation study, known as the East-West Corridor Study, was initiated in the early 1990s to consider mass transit and freeway improvements in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.
By 1993, the study had become highly politicized. Suburban communities were opposed to light rail. Environmentalists, transit advocates, and urbanists were opposed to high occupancy vehicle lanes on the East-West Freeway and freeway expansion in general. Partisan, ideological, and demographic battle lines were drawn. Conservative talk radio weighed in. Light rail took on sociological dimensions. Many viewed it as a threat to their way of life while others viewed it as the salvation of the traditional urban form. Light rail became a lightning rod for much of the political, economic, and social tensions that have characterized late 20th century urban America. In Milwaukee, as it turned out, these tensions were particularly acute.
Nevertheless, light rail alternatives were defined, refined and defined and refined again until finally, in 1997, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation issued a Locally Preferred Alternative that recommended, among other improvements, the construction of a 15-mile light rail "starter system." This $444 million system proposed an east-west mainline connecting downtown Milwaukee with the Milwaukee County Medical Center and zoo and a branch line that would connect downtown with Capitol Court (now known as Midtown Center) on the city's northwest side. The east-west mainline also included a short spur to Miller Park.
However, preliminary engineering (the next step in the study process) never happened. In September 1997, Governor Tommy Thompson halted further study of the proposed light rail system. He also stopped further study of high occupancy vehicle lanes that were also recommended in the Locally Preferred Alternative. However, the governor did not halt further study of over $1 billion in freeway improvements, including the rebuilding of the Marquette Interchange, recommended by that same Locally Preferred Alternative.
Transit advocates, upset with the governor's decision, filed two legal actions with the United States Department of Transportation. These actions alleged that the governor's decision to continue to study freeway improvements while shelving mass transit improvements recommended in the same Locally Preferred Alternative had an adverse impact on low income, minority, and disabled residents of the City of Milwaukee in violation of federal civil rights laws and in violation of the comprehensive intermodal planning process mandated by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. These complaints asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to terminate federal funding for the highway components of the Locally Preferred Alternative unless and until the governor and WisDOT agreed to continue the study of the mass transit improvements including the light rail system.
Milwaukee's business community and political establishment were not happy either. They had two concerns. First, they believed that a fixed guideway transit system was needed in Milwaukee to promote downtown redevelopment. Second, Milwaukee was at risk of losing $241 million of federal transportation dollars that had been set aside for mass transit improvements in Milwaukee.
Solutions slowly emerged. First, state and local officials reached an agreement in 1999 that allocated the $241 Million to a mix of Milwaukee area highway projects and transit projects. Of that, $91.5 Million was set aside for yet-to-be-determined mass transit improvements in Milwaukee. The other projects receiving these funds were the 6th Street Viaduct, the demolition of the Park East Freeway spur and engineering work on the Marquette Interchange project. Second, the Wisconsin Center District (the public authority that owns and operates the Midwest Airlines Center in downtown Milwaukee) agreed to conduct a study of downtown mass transit improvements.
Meanwhile, the legal actions against the governor were resolved by a settlement agreement dated November 17, 2000. In light of the funding compromise and the Downtown Transit Connector Study, it appeared unlikely that transit advocates would be able to get the original light rail starter system back on track. Rather, transit advocates focused their attention on the downtown study.
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