Milwaukee Biz Blog: Desire for a streetcar

The best way to ensure its success is to use it

Streetcar rendering 4th Street

Last updated on June 25th, 2019 at 01:59 pm

Let me first credit playwright Tennessee Williams and his acclaimed “A Streetcar Named Desire” as the inspiration for the title of this blog post. The reference to a streetcar is truly where the similarities end. In this post, I wanted to share opinions about the Milwaukee streetcar development and the potential risks and rewards.

Here are several assumptive rewards that I attribute to the streetcar project.

A rendering of a streetcar in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

Assumption 1: Streetcars attract more riders than buses.

Capacity-wise, streetcars should have more seats available. In fact, according to the official City of Milwaukee project website, streetcar vehicles are typically about double the length and capacity of a Milwaukee County Transit System bus. Not to mention that the promise of quieter, more comfortable rides is intriguing and compelling.

Assumption 2: They’re fun to ride and cleaner than diesel buses.

When one thinks of long-running streetcars, San Francisco and New Orleans come to mind. From my personal experience in San Francisco, I can definitely attest they’re fun to ride. Given the terrain in that city, it’s really quite an adventure.

Assumption 3: Downtown Milwaukee will become even more desirable.

In recent years the center city has become a more attractive place to live, shop, work, and play. The city also references reports of similar streetcar projects implemented across the nation that have stimulated economic development.

Assumption 4: Streetcars possess emotional allure.

For nostalgia alone, streetcars offer a unique personality that most other forms of city transport do not. They also represent a highly visible investment in urban development. Such factors have become a catalyst for modern day streetcar systems popping up with hopes of sparking economic revival in places such as Dallas, Portland, and Kansas City.

Considering the other side of this coin, there are some potential risks to the project.

Assumption 1: Nobody will ride them.

Some naysayers have alluded to visions of empty cars careening our streets empty of passengers and making it difficult to navigate downtown. Not to mention delaying the movement of “real” traffic and pedestrian egress.

Assumption 2: They’ll be dirty and unsafe.

Unkempt and ridden only by unruly patrons has been cited as another reason for an eventual debacle for the city. There is a fear that the streetcar project will shed unfavorable light on the city.

Assumption 3: It will create an economic sinkhole.

Despite funding from generous sponsors (e.g., Potawatomi), some are convinced that the project expenses – especially ongoing maintenance and care – are grossly understated resulting in a financial house of cards.

Whatever side of the debate you may be on, the rails are being laid and the streetcar project is in full motion. The best way to ensure its success is to use it. I plan to do so when I frequent downtown and I surely hope that Milwaukee becomes one of the nation’s best examples of success.

Dave Wendland is vice president of strategic relations for Pewaukee-based Hamacher Resource Group Inc.

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