Milwaukee County BRT could roll out in 2019


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In September 2017, Milwaukee County and the Milwaukee County Transit System updated their grant application to the Federal Transit Administration to fund bus rapid transit service from the lakefront in downtown Milwaukee to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

Since that time, MCTS has hosted public outreach meetings to provide information about the $50 million project. No other major announcements have been made.

A rendering of a bus rapid transit station.

Funding has been the hold up. Eighty percent of the project will be funded by the FTA through its Small Starts program. The remaining 20 percent is expected to come from Milwaukee County.

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In late March, President Donald Trump increased funding for the FTA to $13.5 billion – more than the $12.3 billion authorized – by signing the 2018 Omnibus appropriations bill. The bill includes increases in spending for the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, which could fund future extensions of Milwaukee’s streetcar line, and the Small Starts program.

Milwaukee County is still awaiting word on how the increase could affect MCTS’s BRT application, but the news is promising, said Brendan Conway, chief marketing and communications officer for MCTS.

“We are certainly hopeful we will get funded and that we will find out when in the near future,” Conway said.

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How cash-strapped Milwaukee County will pay its share of the project will also have to be determined.

Conway is confident the money can be allocated from the county’s bus replacement budget.

“This is not new money,” Conway said. “MCTS is spending money on buses now, but instead they will be spending on the BRT route.”

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Conway also pointed out that the BRT route is similar to the existing Gold Line route, which runs from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to Brookfield Square. When BRT begins, that route will no longer exist.

Milwaukee County’s nine-mile BRT route will start from the site where The Couture tower is planned at the lakefront, traveling west to West Wisconsin Avenue. When it reaches North Hawley Road (55th Street), the bus will travel west on West Bluemound Road to 95th Street and then turn north to West Watertown Plank Road to the Regional Medical Center.

The BRT will offer daily service, with buses every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 20 to 30 minutes during non-peak hours.

A rendering of a bus rapid transit vehicle using a designated lane.

The route will use new buses specifically branded for BRT. There will be about 11 buses in the fleet, with eight to 10 on the road at a time, Conway said. The BRT buses would be hybrid electric vehicles that are partially propelled by electric power from batteries on the roof of the buses. These buses are quieter, consume less fuel, have lower emissions and have smoother acceleration than a conventional diesel fuel-powered bus.

MCTS officials originally estimated the time savings for the BRT line, compared to a regular MCTS bus making the same trip, would be 13 minutes one way, or 26 minutes round-trip. However, those time savings were reduced after the Milwaukee Common Council voted against the entire route having a dedicated bus lane.

The route features dedicated bus-only lanes along 53 percent of the route, with up to 19 stations for riders to access the buses. The non-dedicated part of the route will be along West Bluemound Road, Conway said.

Bus rapid transit service operates in hundreds of cities worldwide, approximately 30 of which are in the United States, including San Antonio, Kansas City, Cleveland and Jacksonville.

A study released in January 2017 by the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University found the number of jobs along Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT system nearly doubled since 2008, when the city’s BRT was launched, according to an article in The Plain Dealer.

Cleveland’s system offers dedicated lanes on 60 percent of its seven-mile route.

“This has worked in every city and it will work here,” Conway said. “It is unique because at the ends there are huge job centers of downtown Milwaukee and the regional medical complex, and in between there are small businesses, residential and nine colleges. You can get to the Brewers game and if the streetcar gets the money it needs to extend, you can get to a Bucks game.”

Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman, who has been a vocal proponent of the streetcar and mass transit, is not 100 percent sold on the BRT – at least not the current plan.

Bauman, who represents downtown Milwaukee and Alderman Michael Murphy, who represents the neighborhoods west of downtown, co-sponsored legislation to prevent dedicated traffic lanes west of North Hawley Road for the BRT.   

Bauman said it had to be done to keep businesses along West Bluemound Road from moving out of the city.

“I think what they are going to build is basically a bus route that will duplicate an existing bus service,” Bauman said. “It will operate slightly faster because there will be barrier-free fare collection, and a lot of buses are slowed down because of the boarding process.”

Bauman said if Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele had come to the city in 2016, when the BRT was first discussed, and bus rapid transit, the streetcar and light rail were compared side-by-side, then perhaps the governments could be working together on a singular mass transit solution.

“If we had done a true, private right-of-way (for BRT) with its own road, then this would be effective,” Bauman said. “There are a couple like that. The Orange Line in L.A. is the best example.”

In May, Nashville voters will decide whether to raise taxes to pay for a mass transit plan anchored by light rail and a 1.8- mile tunnel below its downtown.

Bauman said he would love to see something like that built in Milwaukee to accommodate buses and potentially light rail.

“I believe this (BRT) was an ill-planned and instinctive thing,” Bauman said. “The city was going to support it, but I think we could have done a lot better. This is a defeatist plan.”

Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto would like his community to eventually connect to Milwaukee County’s BRT line.

Ponto is a member of the Regional Transit Leadership Council, which was formed in 2016 to work with the Public Policy Forum (now Wisconsin Policy Forum) to evaluate solving the “last mile” barrier to employment for workers taking public transit.

“I know that they were having some issues in Milwaukee with dedicated lanes,” Ponto said. “Bluemound Road through Brookfield doesn’t have those issues – it is very wide and we do have dedicated lanes for buses.”

Ponto said while he knows BRT needs strategically-located stops and controlled traffic lights, he believes bus rapid transit could work seamlessly from Wauwatosa to Goerke’s Corners.

Ponto said BRT is an attractive possibility because it is much less expensive than rail and it is flexible. He also believes it could benefit many of the people who work at the restaurants, hotels and stores along West Bluemound Road.

“We have an interesting opportunity right now, with Foxconn, to really address transit in a creative way,” Ponto said. “Obviously, we have to get from where we are to a more advanced system, but I think that attention will be focused on transporting people because of Foxconn and their huge need for labor, and that can really benefit the whole area.”

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