Downtown businesses hop onboard for streetcars

If your only source of local news and analysis was AM talk radio, you might be inclined to believe that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is standing out on the corner with his proposed little downtown streetcar project like some sort of pitiful orphan.

Indeed, the local radio boys have long opposed any public investments in mass transit – a phenomenon that is unique to the Milwaukee market.

Truth be told, you can count me among the initial skeptics of the streetcar project, at least in its designated route. As someone who lives in a suburb and works in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, I honestly can’t envision a single instance in which I would ever use it.

So what. I’ve learned that you should never evaluate the wisdom of a public works project based solely upon how it will or will not affect you. The only question that matters is, will this project serve the greater good?

According to Barrett’s office, the route will run within a quarter-mile of 100 percent of the downtown hotels, 100 percent of downtown’s 20 largest employers, 90 percent of the occupied first-floor downtown retail space and professional offices and 75 percent of the downtown residential housing.

The streetcar route goes from the Intermodal Station east on St. Paul Avenue, north on Broadway, east on Wells Street north on Van Buren Street (heading south it would use Jackson Street) and then east on Ogden Avenue to the Farwell Avenue intersection.

The $64.6 million, two-mile streetcar line will operate on fixed tracks powered by overhead electric catenary lines. The Milwaukee project will be modeled after the operating system in Portland, Ore.

For the record, Barrett has strong support for the project from the city’s business community. The city has received more than 160 letters of support for the project.

Prominent supporters include: Ward Fowler, Paul Miller and Lincoln Fowler of Alterra Coffee Roasters; Mike Fabishak of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee; Steve Costello of the Bradley Center; Sheldon Oppermann of Compass Properties; Gordon Steimle of Ogden & Company Inc.; Nancy O’Keefe of the Historic Third Ward Association; Jeff Sherman of OnMilwaukee.com; Mick Hatch of Foley & Lardner LLP; Don Smiley of Summerfest; Chancellor Michael Lovell of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; William Johnson of the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin; Joel Lee of Van Buren Management ; John Kersey of Zilber Ltd.; Gus Frank of the Forest County Potawatomi; Barry Mandel of The Mandel Group; Bill Bertha of U.S. Bank; and Jill Morin of Kahler Slater Inc.

“We want to see Milwaukee thrive with increased jobs, an expanded tax base, a revitalized downtown area and a boost to our city’s overall image. It will take cars off the roads, encourage cycling and walking, and will attract creative talent. Milwaukee Streetcar has the power to accomplish these goals. This is just the sort of public investment that our city needs,” wrote the Fowlers and Miller of Alterra.

“I believe the addition of this system will vastly improve circulation of business people, residents and visitors throughout our downtown area and help alleviate some of the parking issues that we all face when trying to visit downtown restaurants, businesses and tourist attractions,” Steimle wrote.

The Milwaukee Common Council will vote on the streetcar project on Tuesday, July 26. The project appears to have the support of a healthy majority of the aldermen. Since the federal money already has been set aside for the project, the council’s vote will be the final hurdle. Unlike the high-speed rail project and regional transit authorities that were nixed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled state Legislature, Milwaukee’s streetcar project is going through.

The only remaining variables will be engineering costs and the question of whether the streetcar line will be operated by the Milwaukee County Transit System.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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