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Local Transit Plans: Activity Picking Up

Downtown Transit Connector Study
On February 16, 2007, Mayor Barrett unveiled his Comprehensive Transportation Plan. The plan has two major components: 1) a 3-mile Downtown Streetcar Circulator; and 2) bus rapid transit service on two routes in Milwaukee that would connect major employment centers. The total cost of the Mayor's plan is $107.65 million. The plan envisions that both improvements would be part of the Milwaukee County Transit System. 

This plan is the latest proposal to invest the $91.5 million in federal transportation funds that have been set aside for over 17 years. Previously, the Downtown Transit Connector Study had proposed a $300 million, 13-mile guided bus system. On May 31, 2006 the Common Council convincingly upheld Mayor Barrett's veto of this plan.

A. Downtown Streetcar Circulator
The Downtown Streetcar Circulator, which closely resembles a plan I introduced in October 2006, would operate modern streetcars on a 3-mile loop in downtown Milwaukee. The electrically powered streetcars would operate on rails imbedded in the pavement. Streetcars would operate in mixed traffic with other motor vehicles and would not require a reserved or dedicated right-of-way. Street parking along the route would be largely unaffected. No existing bus service would have to be eliminated.

Modern streetcar systems are operating in over a dozen American cities including Charlotte, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, New Orleans, Portland, Kenosha, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Tampa, and Tucson, Arizona. Certain segments of older rail transit systems also have streetcar service such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

The Downtown Streetcar Circulator will primarily function as an economic development tool. It will improve the connectivity between downtown destinations such as the Midwest Airline Center, Bradley Center, Shops at Grand Avenue, Lakefront, Maier Festival Grounds, major parking lots, downtown workplaces and dozens of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues. It would also link downtown destinations and workplaces with intercity rail (Amtrak) and bus service and the proposed KRM commuter rail service that will all use the Amtrak Depot at 4th & St. Paul Ave. (currently being renovated as the Milwaukee Intermodal Center). The Downtown Streetcar Circulator can be easily expanded to serve other near downtown neighborhoods such as Walker's Point, Brady Street and Bronzeville.

The Mayor's transportation plan estimates that the Downtown Streetcar Circulator will cost $52.59 million to build. A portion of the $91.5 million of federal transportation funds set aside for Milwaukee would be used to finance 80% of construction. No property taxes will be used to build the system. To place this cost in perspective, it is similar to the cost of building a major freeway interchange or the cost of rebuilding and extending Canal Street in the Menomonee Valley (2.6 miles in length).

B. COMET Bus Rapid Transit
The second part of the Mayor's plan is called COMET (County Of Milwaukee Express Transit). It envisions operating two bus rapid transit lines using modern rubber tired buses operating on existing streets. The lines are designed to link major employment centers including downtown and Mitchell International Airport. The routes would provide enhanced bus stop amenities and faster travel times than current bus service. COMET service would connect with the Downtown Streetcar Circulator at various downtown locations thereby providing access to numerous downtown destinations and the Amtrak Depot/Intermodal Center.

The Mayor's transportation plan estimates that the COMET service would cost $55.06 million to implement. The remaining portion of the $91.5 million of federal transportation funds would be used to fund 80% of the cost of implementation. No property taxes would be required to implement COMET service.

This plan—the Downtown Streetcar Circulator and COMET—represent a cost effective use of the $91.5 million of federal transportation funds and, when combined with intercity rail and bus service and the proposed KRM commuter rail service at the Amtrak Deport/Intermodal Center, will create an interconnected web of new and/or improved transit choices for Milwaukee residents, commuters, visitors and tourists to travel within the region, city and downtown. I enthusiastically endorse this conceptual plan and will look forward to further study results that outline the details of these improvements.

KRM Commuter Rail Service
The KRM Commuter Link Study has proposed a 33-mile commuter rail line connecting Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee using existing freight railroad tracks. KRM commuter service would employ self-propelled rail diesel cars to operate 14 round trips each weekday and a somewhat reduced weekend service. KRM commuter rail service would connect with Chicago area METRA commuter trains at Kenosha or Waukegan, Ill. KRM service would terminate at the Amtrak Depot/Intermodal Center in Downtown Milwaukee. It is estimated that the KRM commuter rail service will cost $198 million to build using a combination of federal, state and local funds.

Dedicated Funding Source for Public Transportation
1n 2005 the Wisconsin Legislature created the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to, among others, identify a dedicated funding source for the local share of capital and operating costs of the proposed KRM commuter rail service and local transit in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha. With respect to the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), this effort is particularly urgent.

Over the last six years, MCTS has experienced significant fare increases and service reductions. In addition, a recent report (www.sewrpc.org/milwcotdp) from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) indicates that MCTS is facing additional service reductions of 35%-40% within the next two years unless a dedicated funding source is identified. Presently, the local share of MCTS capital and operating costs are funded by the Milwaukee County property tax levy and property taxes have not been adequate to maintain existing service much less expand or improve service.

In short, in order to maintain existing Milwaukee County transit service, restore recent cuts in service and implement proposed improvements such as the Downtown Streetcar Circulator, COMET or any other proposed plan, a non-property tax funding source must be identified. Similarly, in order to implement KRM commuter rail service, a non-property tax funding source must be identified to cover the local share of KRM capital and operating costs.

Ironically, MCTS is one of the last major transit systems in the country to rely on property taxes. Most other big city transit systems utilize dedicated sales taxes, gasoline taxes, vehicle registration fees or a combination of all three.

The RTA has reviewed several dedicated funding alternatives including a 0.5% sales tax to fund the proposed KRM commuter rail service and local transit service in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha Counties. This dedicated sales tax would have replaced current property tax funding for transit. Unfortunately, on January 30, 2007 the RTA board voted to recommend to the governor and Legislature a $15 rental car transaction fee that would be levied in the three counties to fund the local share of KRM commuter rail service costs but made no recommendation for a dedicated funding source for MCTS.

In response to this action, I introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by 9 of my colleagues, which, among others, expressed the Common Council's opposition to any dedicated funding source that did not also include funding for the local share of capital and operating costs of MCTS. On February 6, 2007, this resolution was approved by an 11 to 4 vote. As a result of this resolution, the governor and Legislature have not acted on the RTA rental car fee proposal. As of this writing, the RTA is stalemated and it is unclear what, if any, dedicated funding source will emerge.

An overwhelming majority of the council supports a dedicated funding source for both KRM commuter rail service and the MCTS. We believe that local transit service is a critical public service to promote economic development, provide transportation choices to Milwaukee residents and serve the mobility needs of thousands of our constituents who, because of low income, disability or age, depend on public transit.

Proposed downtown streetcar depicted in front of the Milwaukee Public Market at Water St. and St. Paul Ave.
Proposed COMET (County Of Milwaukee Express Transit) which would consist of two bus rapid transit lines using modern rubber tired buses operating on existing streets (depicted above at Prospect Ave. and Brady St.).

Why Not Use Rubber Tired Buses?

It is sometimes suggested that rubber tired buses could serve the same purpose as streetcars. There are at least five reasons why streetcar technology would be more effective.

1. The streetcar route is self-identifying because of the tracks and therefore is much more attractive to visitors, tourists and occasional users who may not be familiar with downtown streets.

2. Many people in this country will not ride a bus no matter how attractive the service. However, experience in other cities that have built streetcar/light rail systems has demonstrated that these same people will ride a train.  Therefore streetcars will be more attractive to commuters, visitors and downtown workers and residents who would otherwise drive their cars.

3. Based on the experience of those cities that have built streetcars/light rail systems, streetcars are far more likely to foster economic development along the route than rubber tired buses.

4. Streetcars do not pollute and use domestically produced electricity not foreign produced oil.

5. The Downtown Streetcar Circulator will introduce fixed guideway rail transit to Milwaukee at a relatively modest cost so citizens can see first hand how streetcars/light rail function.  Most other cities have followed this approach–build a small starter system first and then expand the system after popular support grows.


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