Some Milwaukee County supervisors want MCTS to operate streetcar

Milwaukee Streetcar rendering

Milwaukee County could submit a proposal to the city to operate the downtown Milwaukee streetcar system.

A rendering of the streetcar in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.

If chosen, the Milwaukee County Transit System, which currently operates 411 buses in Milwaukee County, would run the $124 million streetcar that will run from the Intermodal Station into the Historic Third Ward, through the east side of downtown and into the Lower East Side.

The city issued a request for proposal for a streetcar system operator on Feb. 17. The proposals are due April 4.

Whether the county will be able to submit a response to the RFP in time is unknown. The county and MCTS has already missed the March 2 meeting for groups interested in operating the streetcar.

The County Board’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee approved the measure on Wednesday. But, the full board won’t vote on the proposal until March 23.

The measure then goes to the county executive, who could sign the resolution, take no action, or veto the resolution. A vote of two-thirds of the county board would be required to override the county executive’s veto.

There is also a state law and county board provision that says Milwaukee County cannot spend any money on the streetcar.

Still, Milwaukee County Supervisors who voted in favor of MCTS operating the streetcar system on Wednesday believe they took a historic step forward.

“Milwaukee County is perfectly situated to run the streetcar as it will be heavily integrated into our current transit system,” said Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. “Operating the streetcar will allow MCTS to provide our riders with an enhanced experience and will attract new riders.”

Before the vote, supervisors questioned Abele’s willingness to allow MCTS to operate the streetcar, and even his support of the streetcar project in general.

Supervisors called for Abele to come down to the meeting. Abele did not oblige. He was attending the grand opening of the Boys and Girls Club in Sherman Park, according to his spokeswoman.

When Brian Dranzik, Milwaukee County director of transportation was asked if Abele supported the streetcar, Dranzik was non-committal.

“The best answer I can give you is we have to figure out how (the streetcar) integrates with how we provide transportation to the entire county,” Dranzik said. “It’s a complex answer in terms of what the system means overall going forward.”

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb said Abele’s lack of response could be interpreted on its own.

“In light of the fact that the county executive is not here or empowered anyone to speak clearly on his position, I’m going to fill in the blank,” Lipscomb said. “He did not really want our own bus system. He supported privatization. MCTC only exits because of the County Board.”

But Melissa Baldauff, Abele’s spokeswoman, called the county executive an unwavering advocate for transit as a means to foster economic development.

“That is one reason he was a leader in ensuring that the Couture project would not only create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in new revenue, but would feature a multimodal transportation hub that incorporates county buses, the streetcar, Bublr bikes, and the new bus rapid transit line,” Baldauff said.

Baldauff said if the County Board approves a bid for MCTS operate the streetcar, Abele will determine what would be necessary for the county to do so.

“Although MCTS is very experienced at operating bus and paratransit services, no one in our organization has experience operating rail/streetcar, which is necessary for a proposal to the city to be considered responsible and responsive,” Baldauff said. “MCTS would need to partner with an experienced individual or organization should Milwaukee County want a proposal to be submitted. We are also prohibited by state statute from expending county funds on operating the streetcar.”

Supervisor Michael Mayo supported the resolution Wednesday, but said he has several concerns, including Milwaukee County taxpayers having to pay for the streetcar with additional training for MCTS drivers.

“We are behind the eight ball about submitting (a response to the) RFP,” Mayo said. “Also, they are going to be going after the same dollars we are to operate our own transportation systems we use every day to move thousands of people around this county. They have a new toy and they are going to undercut us with it.”

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