DPW preparing report for possible re-route of streetcar lakefront line

Current plans call for transit stop at Couture development site

The Couture plans include a multi-modal transit hub with a streetcar stop.
The Couture plans include a multi-modal transit hub with a streetcar stop.

Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works is preparing a report detailing its options to re-route the streetcar’s lakefront line from its proposed turnaround point at the Couture site, and will soon meet with federal officials to discuss those options.

Alderman Robert Bauman said DPW staff informed him of the coming report, as well as the meeting with the Federal Transit Administration. Bauman’s comments came during a Public Works Committee meeting on Wednesday.

On the committee’s agenda was an update from DPW on the streetcar’s lakefront line. The update had to be postponed since department leaders were out of town at a convention, Bauman said.

Even so, staff informed Bauman that a report would be coming. He said more details would likely be shared when the committee meets again next month.

“They (DPW) are planning to meet with the Federal Transit Administration sometime later this month to discuss this report and discuss these options,” said Bauman, “and I guess at the next meeting we will have more information on what the Federal Transit Administration’s perspective on this issue is.”

DPW spokesman Brian DeNeve confirmed plans for the meeting with the FTA.

“DPW and DCD (Department of City Development) will be meeting with FTA later this month to discuss options with the lakefront line and any exploration of alternatives will be done in collaboration with Milwaukee County,” he said.

The 0.4-mile lakefront extension to the city’s downtown streetcar system is designed to turn around at the feet of the planned 44-story Couture high-rise. But construction of the $122 million Couture has not yet moved forward, since developer Rick Barrett is still seeking investors for the project.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee County is on the hook of getting the lakefront line up and running before the end of next year, or it could lose $6.7 million in FTA grant money that was used to build the Downtown Transit Center on the site, which has been demolished to make way for the Couture. To keep those federal funds the site must continue to be used for transportation, and the Couture plans include a transit hub with a streetcar stop.

Streetcar track has been installed on Clybourn and Michigan streets basically up to the Couture site, which is southeast of Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.

In order to complete the work for the streetcars lakefront line, the Couture project would need to have at least reached a point that would allow the city to place a temporary stop on Clybourn Street and run through the site while construction progresses, according to DPW Commissioner Jeff Polenske.

Polenske’s comments came this summer when he briefed committee members on a possible Plan B for the lakefront line. He said one option could be to further extend the line across Lincoln Memorial Drive, putting the streetcar closer to the lakefront.

However, Polenske said the department believes the Couture project will move forward, rendering that option unnecessary.

DeNeve echoed that perspective when responding to an inquiry in late August.

“At this point, we remain confident the Couture project will move forward and anticipate our Lakefront Line will ultimately be constructed through the completed transit concourse,” he wrote in an email. “We are mindful of the FTA timeline and will adapt how we approach the work if necessary although we don’t believe that will be necessary at this time.”

The pressure is seemingly mounting for the project to either move forward or to move on.

On Monday, County Board Supervisor Anthony Staskunas expressed skepticism of the project moving forward. During the board’s Community and Economic Development Committee, Staskunas said he will be asking county officials what options might exist to select a different developer or project at the site.

“We (the committee) are going to be in closed session in a few minutes, but one of my questions is going to be, to do my due diligence, ‘What can we as a County Board do to move on from Barrett,’” he said.

Barrett acquired the property from Milwaukee County in 2016.

The Couture hit a milestone in November when Barrett announced after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked the developer to submit additional information for its loan guarantee application. Unable to line up financing in time, Barrett allowed the application deadline to pass earlier this year, but said he would continue to look for the last piece of equity on the project.

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