Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:45 pm
Earlier this month, I traveled to Portland, Ore., and Denver, Colo., to study the highly successful public transportation systems in those cities.
Our Milwaukee delegation included County Executive Scott Walker, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president Tim Sheehy and philanthropist Michael Cudahy. We met with engineers, local transit experts and city officials in Portland and Denver, and toured and rode the transportation systems in both cities.
Our goal was to learn what public transportation means to these communities, and to see first-hand the tremendous economic development opportunities generated by successful mass transit systems.
We saw how a modern, intermodal public transportation system can create jobs, spark economic growth, reduce sprawl, attract young professionals and help a city reach new levels of greatness.
Why Denver and Portland?
We visited Portland and Denver because they provide good models for Milwaukee to follow. All three cities are approximately the same size – according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 population estimate, Milwaukee, with 578,887 residents, has a larger population than both Denver (557,917) and Portland (533,427).
At the same time, Milwaukee has a greater population density, about three times that of both Denver and Portland. Population density is a key indicator of a community’s willingness to use public transit. Typically, more people in less space means greater need for public transportation to ease congestion and help move people around.
All three cities also have growing downtown districts and adjacent neighborhoods. According to MapInfo, the 2006 residential population that lives within a three-mile radius of downtown Milwaukee is 205,100, which is greater than that of both Portland (138,000) and Denver (188,600).
These statistics suggest that Milwaukee would be a good fit for a modern, multimodal public transit system on par with Denver and Portland. If it can work there, it can work here – an encouraging sign considering the great transit successes in these cities.
Portland’s award-winning transportation system has long been one of the best in the country. In addition to their bus and light rail systems, Portland opened a new, modern streetcar system in 2001 to connect emerging near-downtown neighborhoods to Portland State University.
The 2.4 mile system cost $56.9 million to construct – approximately the same cost as my proposal – and has served as a catalyst for new development. More than $2.3 billion in private investment and development has occurred in the areas served by the first streetcar line, and Portland State University has seen applications and interest skyrocket, making it a stronger, more attractive educational institution.
Portland’s system has been so successful that three streetcar line extensions have been added since 2001.
The story is similar in Denver, where approximately 150 Colorado companies were listed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s "Best Workplaces for Commuters" 2004 study. In fact, Colorado employers lead the nation in offering commuting alternatives for its workforce.
On an average weekday, 63,000 people utilize the 16th Street Mall Bus Rapid Transit system. The one-mile pedestrian/transit mall is home to a diverse array of more than 1,000 downtown retailers and retail centers. A Bus Rapid Transit line runs through the core of the city’s downtown and has helped Denver grow to the 10th-largest downtown retail center in the country.
Since 1990, downtown Denver and surrounding neighborhoods have witnessed over $4 billion in private investment, thanks in large part to its modern transit system.
Milwaukee is one of the only cities of our size in the country that does not have a fixed transit system in operation, and most of our peer cities are expanding existing systems.
I believe we can replicate the great success stories in Denver and Portland here in Milwaukee – linking workers to jobs, sparking new economic growth and development, and seamlessly connecting our entire area.
Earlier this year I unveiled my Comprehensive Transit Strategy for Milwaukee, a new transportation vision that utilizes $91.5 million in federal transit funds to upgrade and modernize Milwaukee’s ailing, outdated system.
My plan will improve citywide accessibility and connect workers to jobs by installing two Bus Rapid Transit lines and a downtown streetcar service. My vision also transforms the Amtrak Station downtown into a multi-modal central transit hub that will link the entire city and region.
It’s time to move Milwaukee forward and spark economic growth and development through public transit, just like in Portland and Denver. I encourage you to take a look at my Comprehensive Transit Strategy for Milwaukee at www.city.milwaukee.gov/ImprovingOurTransitS22513.htm.
Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee.