Milwaukee officials unveil spending plan to build streetcar extension, plan for future expansion

$46.8 million proposal would need Common Council approval

Last updated on June 20th, 2019 at 10:16 am

Milwaukee officials have devised a plan to put $46.8 million toward both the construction of an extension of the Hop streetcar line and preliminary work on future connections to the Bronzeville and Walker’s Point neighborhoods, Mayor Tom Barrett announced today.

Barrett, flanked by a number of Milwaukee Common Council members and various community stakeholders, detailed the proposed spending package this afternoon during a news conference inside Gee’s Clippers barbershop, at the northeast corner of North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and West Garfield Avenue.

“We’ve gotten as far as we can now because of the tremendous support of so many of people who are behind me (and) people in this community who recognize that if this city is going to compete in the 21st Century, we have to be competitive with cities like Denver, and Seattle and Atlanta,” Barrett said. “That’s who our competition is, and that’s what we’re trying to do here is remain competitive. If we’re not growing, we’re dying.”

The proposal would need the approval of Common Council members.

Funding for the streetcar work would all come from existing tax-incremental-financing districts, including $20 million that was previously approved by the Common Council for construction of an extension from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station north along Fifth Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue up to Wisconsin Avenue. That project will receive another $8 million to fully fund the expected $28 million in costs.

The goal is for construction to begin this fall and finish the following spring, with the new extension up and running in time for the Democratic National Convention that summer.

Although the Hop is planned to eventually run past the Fiserv Forum, at the corner of Vel R. Phillips Avenue and Highland Avenue, it won’t be extended that far under this proposal. And this is actually a benefit, given that it wouldn’t be able to run up the arena anyway during the convention days, Barrett noted.

“We actually cannot have that stop in front of the Fiserv Forum (during the DNC),” he said. “And that might seem counter-intuitive, (but) the reason we cannot have it stop in front of the Fiserv Forum is because of security reasons. There’s going to be a security zone, so there are limitations to what mass transit can basically stop right in front of the Fiserv Forum.”

Jeff Polenske, Milwaukee Department of Public Works commissioner, said there is still some design work taking place on the streetcar extension. Utility work would begin in the fall, but the plan right now is for most of the construction work to occur in the spring, he said.

The proposal would also commit $18.8 million toward planning, environmental studies and engineering work on the planned Bronzeville and Walker’s Point extensions. This work will qualify the streetcar expansion for consideration in the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Improvement Grant Program.

The full three-mile extension would bring the Hop’s northern terminus to the intersection of North Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and North Avenue in Bronzeville and its southern terminus to South First Street and East Pittsburgh Avenue in Walker’s Point.

Barrett said the city expects this expansion to ultimately cost $150-160 million. He hopes half of this cost will be paid for by federal grants.

“What’s necessary is that we demonstrate that we’re committed to this, that we’re making an investment by having this preliminary engineering,” he said. “That will allow us to compete on — and we feel that we are in very good position — to compete (for federal funds).”

Among the streetcar’s supporters is Alderwoman Milele Coggs, who represents the area where the planned northern extension would run through.

“There is not a major metropolitan city in this country that you can think of that doesn’t have multiple modes of transportation,” she said. “Although we have some good systems that already exist, the streetcar, to me, brings us into a modern day. And it allows us to be more competitive with other major metropolitan cities.”

Not every council member expressed support for the spending proposal. Alderman Bob Donovan issued a statement on Thursday calling the expansion expensive, ill-advised and premature.

“What I cannot get over is that, with basic services slipping and neighborhoods crumbling, Mayor Barrett chooses this precious moment of optimism and hope to pursue the most divisive policy imaginable,” he said.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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