Aldermen hold streetcar expansion proposal, seek to resolve issues

Barrett administration says further delaying approval would jeopardize DNC 2020 expansion goal

A panel of Milwaukee aldermen say they are holding off on a vote to endorse the proposed extension of the Hop streetcar system in order to resolve disputes over how far the planned extension should go and answer other lingering questions.

Members of the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee met on Tuesday to consider a handful of proposals that together make up a $46.8 million spending plan for extending the streetcar.

Mayor Tom Barrett in early March unveiled the spending package, which would rely on existing tax increment financing districts that would allow the following:

  • Construction of a streetcar route extension north from St. Paul Avenue up to the intersection of Vel R. Phillips and Wisconsin avenues;
  • Commencement of preliminary planning and engineering that would eventually lead to the streetcar being extended into the Bronzeville and Walker’s Point neighborhoods; and
  • Further studying route alternatives for Walker’s Point to take the system beyond the planned terminus at First Street and Pittsburgh Avenue.

A separate $5 million is also being proposed to construct a public plaza at the planned streetcar station at Wisconsin Avenue, just across the street from the Wisconsin Center.

After an hours-long discussion Tuesday, the committee voted to put the spending plan on hold, at least for another week if not longer. Alderman Russell Stamper proposed the hold to give the committee more time to possibly hash out issues that some members had with the plans in their current form.

Stamper also wanted city administration to ask private stakeholders whether they would commit to any of the following: Sponsoring the streetcar’s construction or operation, supporting a neighborhood development fund specifically for the central city and financing an initiative to prevent displacement and gentrification.

Committee chairman Khalif Rainey said the hope was to have a special committee hearing on the items prior to the Common Council meeting, which is scheduled for next week Tuesday.

A main point of friction during the committee meeting was that the proposed extension into Walker’s Point would only reach the corner of First and Pittsburgh.

Aldermen Robert Bauman and Jose Perez sponsored a proposal that called for the streetcar to be extended down First Street and National Avenue, reaching the intersection of Sixth Street and National Avenue. What’s more, a group of businesses and community groups sent a letter to Barrett and Common Council members backing such a proposal.

The letter, dated Monday, had 15 names attached to it. Nancy Hernandez, president of Hispanic Collaborative, told committee members that since the time the letter was sent out she’s heard from even more people who would like to add their names to it.

Rocky Marcoux said the existing plan did not have the streetcar extending far into Walker’s Point for a number of reasons. For instance, through previous planning and public engagement sessions, it quickly became clear that the Bronzeville extension should go up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and terminate where that street meets North Avenue. An extension in Walker’s Point had a number of possibilities, including an extension to First Street and Greenfield Avenue.

Furthermore, there are more existing tax financing districts in the area of the Bronzeville neighborhood that could pay for the northern extension.

“We don’t have the TID capacity to pay for that construction,” Marcoux said of the Walker’s Point area.

Bauman pushed back on that argument. He pointed out an extension to Sixth and National would only add about four-fifths of a mile of track to the roughly three-mile expansion that’s being proposed. What’s more, the city has years to conduct engineering and planning before construction would even begin on this extension.

The proposal initially failed on a 3-2 vote, but the vote was taken near the beginning of discussion and prior to any testimony from the public or the proposal’s sponsors.

Committee members also took issue with the urgency associated with passing this. Alderwoman Milele Coggs asked how the expansion plans might be affected if the proposal was held for even just one Common Council cycle, meaning the proposal would be brought back to the committee next month.

Jeff Polenske, commissioner of the Department of Public Works, said doing so would mean the proposed extension to Wisconsin Avenue would not be constructed in time for the Democratic National Convention next July.

“For us to be able to actually get that under construction in time for July of 2020, we do need to be acting on that now,” he said.

This did not sit well with several committee members. Stamper noted these last-minute votes have been a “common trait” from city administration in his five-year tenure on the Common Council.

“If it (council approval) doesn’t meet the schedule, that’s your fault you didn’t bring it to us in time,” he said.

Some even spoke against extending the streetcar at all, perhaps chief among those being Alderman Tony Zielinski. Among his complaints about the proposal, Zielinski questioned how the city would pay for operating an expanded streetcar once its current sources of financing dried up.

The city spends approximately $3.5 million a year on operating the streetcar. Polenske said that so far the city has relied on a sponsorship from Potawatomi Hotel & Casino and federal grant money to cover those costs. Polenske added the federal grant money will run out at the end of 2020.

Absent more federal money and further commitments from corporate sponsors, the streetcar would then have to rely on money from its transportation fund.

“We’re going to have a tough time coming up with the money,” Zielinski said.

A number of community groups and organizations also expressed support for extending the streetcar. Deshea Agee, executive director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District No. 8, noted some of the city’s toughest challenges include segregation, joblessness and public safety.

“The streetcar extension into Bronzeville in particular doesn’t solve all the problems,” he said. “But what it does is create opportunity for economic development in a neighborhood that hasn’t seen it much.”

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