From Denver to Charlotte; Portland to the Twin Cities; Indianapolis to Dallas; Chicago to Little Rock, Ark.; cities across the country are reaping the vast economic benefits of rail transit.
Right now, no less than 27 major cities across the country are considering new or expanded rail systems. In fact, virtually every important American city that is growing features this technology in its transportation system.
Rail can do for Milwaukee what it has done for cities of all types and sizes in every corner of this country: spark literally billions of dollars of economic growth and development. Without it, Milwaukee is missing a critical opportunity to propel our community forward.
The question is, what is the best way to introduce rail to Milwaukee?
My transit plan splits $91.5 million in federal transit money designated for Milwaukee, investing about half in Bus Rapid Transit to help the county’s struggling bus system, and half to create a new starter streetcar system called the Downtown Circulator.
Here is why the Downtown Circulator is best way to start rail in Milwaukee:
A strong downtown is crucial to all of Milwaukee. According to Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2008, the strongest U.S. markets are those that make their urban centers "…magnets for corporate headquarters, business elites, the best and the brightest of the workforce as well as the largest share of investor dollars."
No one believes downtown is more important than other neighborhoods, but downtown development is historically a major factor in business decisions to stay, relocate, or expand in a city, as well as an important part in retaining and keeping young talent. Rail makes Milwaukee more attractive for businesses and workers alike.
And downtown development sparks economic growth in surrounding neighborhoods.
- Major economic hub. Downtown is home to many of Milwaukee’s most important businesses and more than 78,000 jobs – including 18,000 (23 percent) service and blue collar jobs. And this doesn’t include many part-time and seasonal employees who work downtown. Plus the Circulator will do for Milwaukee what rail has done in countless cities across America – develop the economy and create more jobs.
- Major destination point for area residents and visitors. Entertainment districts, concert venues, the Lakefront, arts and culture attractions, sporting events, shopping, festivals – people come downtown from across the region and around the state. Future developments at the Pabst Brewery and in the Park East will only increase the demand for rail in this area.
- Fast growing neighborhood. The Downtown population now stands at 15,000 people and rising, and more than 200,000 people live within a 3-mile radius of downtown Milwaukee.
- Multi-modal, fully integrated transit vision. My plan links the Downtown Circulator with two new Bus Rapid Transit express routes, KRM commuter rail, Amtrak service, and the County’s local bus service, and connects it all at the newly-renovated Intermodal Station. The Circulator would be accessible to everyone.
Fiscally responsible. My plan utilizes part of $91.5 million already set aside for us – without massive new spending.
- Critical first step. Getting a rail system in the ground that will clearly demonstrate its tremendous value is the best way to introduce rail to Milwaukee. The Circulator is the perfect starter system to serve as a first phase, and we can responsibly and smartly expand the Circulator into neighborhoods across the city in the future.
Those who might oppose my plan because they want a larger, more expansive rail system have failed to explain how to pay for it, and such systems are typically very expensive. And my plan puts Milwaukee on the pathway to a greater system in the future – in a smart, planned, and responsible way.
To reject rail outright is a failure to recognize its enormous economic power, and will cause Milwaukee to lag behind virtually every other major city in America.
Splitting $91.5 million in federal funds between the Downtown Circulator and Bus Rapid Transit to help the County bus system is a real compromise and will move Milwaukee forward.
Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee.