Who’s going to ride the streetcar?

Cover Story

As the streetcar rolled off a truck onto the tracks on West St. Paul Avenue in downtown Milwaukee on March 26, onlookers scrambled to record the moment.

It has been such a long time coming that Milwaukee’s streetcar arriving in the steel hardly seemed real.

The first streetcar vehicle arrives in Milwaukee.

Bystanders watched the 40-ton, 67-foot articulated vehicle’s maiden voyage near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station to its parking spot in the streetcar maintenance facility at 450 N. Fifth St. in preparation for 621 miles of testing before passengers can ride.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett acknowledged the project had been arduous and there were plenty of critics, but with characteristic optimism, he hoped to convince them of its greatness.

“My hope is that we’ll win over, not all the critics, but we’ll win over many of the critics when they see how well this runs, when they see how many people are utilizing it,” Barrett said.

Alderman Bob Donovan, one of the project’s biggest critics, describes the streetcar as a “solution in search of a problem.”

“I never supported it from day one, primarily because the city is faced with a variety of challenges in our neighborhoods that remain unaddressed, higher priorities than a streetcar,” Donovan said. “I think in the long run we’re going to be paying dearly for this. The maintenance cost, the operational cost, we don’t know necessarily where that money is going to come from.”

Regardless of the politics, now that it’s here, the question is: Who is going to ride the streetcar? And how will it fit into daily life in downtown Milwaukee?

Sponsorship & ridership

The City of Milwaukee estimates the Phase 1 route will provide 1,850 rides per day and about 595,000 rides per year in its first full year of operation in 2019.

The route is meant to complement existing bus lines and bike share stations and improve mobility around the downtown area.

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino has agreed to foot the bill for the first year’s fares as part of a $10 million, 12-year deal that includes prominent logos on the streetcar’s exterior.

The streetcar is designed to allow users to “park once” along the route and then take the streetcar to different destinations downtown or in the Third Ward. Streetcar supporter Alderman Bob Bauman, who represents the downtown area, described an example of a user who wants to get dinner at the Calderone Club on North Old World Third Street, see a show at the Skylight Theater in the Third Ward, and grab a drink afterward at Victor’s on North Van Buren Street.

Bauman also envisioned residents using the streetcar for pub crawls, or tourists taking the Lakefront Line to Discovery World or the Milwaukee Art Museum. Professionals from Chicago visiting their company’s Milwaukee office might take the streetcar from the Intermodal Station to the U.S. Bank Center or Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons.

“I suspect you’re going to see heavy usage by downtown residents, by downtown workers over the noon hour and after work,” Bauman said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of tourists and visitors using it, without question. Tourism is not a bad thing. Tourism generates a lot of income for people.”

Ghassan Korban, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Public Works, expects riders to take the streetcar to and from the Intermodal Station.

The route

“We hope it’s tourists, we hope it’s residents (who ride the streetcar), we hope it’s employees who just come downtown for work and hopefully enhance or encourage their mobility during the lunch hour. Maybe after work to just hop on it, get somewhere, run some errands and come back to either their workplace or wherever they happen to be parked,” Korban said.

While the 2.1-mile route isn’t the longest, this is a starter system that aims to be a proving ground, said Jeff Polenske, Milwaukee city engineer.

“The whole idea of being in the downtown was to demonstrate all the very positive impacts that a streetcar can provide to a community,” he said.

Korban and Polenske aren’t worried about getting support now that the streetcar is here.

“People forget pain and people forget the inconvenience that they went through on a project,” Korban said. “They’re going to start believing and they’re going to start getting excited about it. Now you have a streetcar that’s running. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Initially, they expect there to be a surge of curiosity, followed by a drop-off, which they have taken into account in their ridership projections. The real sticking point will be when the free rides end at the conclusion of Potawatomi’s sponsorship on September 1, 2019.

Railroad fan Tom Burke drove up from Fox River Grove, Illinois to see the arrival of the first streetcar March 26, with plans to return when he can ride it. He expects mainly tourists to use the routes.

“I think it will be nice, especially if they can extend it out to Summerfest and over to Marquette and over to UW-Milwaukee. Right now, it’s kind of limited in terms of the loop that it does,” Burke said.

Greg Paules, who works for the Department of Transportation at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, came by because he was curious to see it.

“I’ve been excited about this happening for a while, so I wanted to get a first glimpse of it, check it out,” Paules said. “I live about a mile-and-a-half from here and we’re on one of the proposed expanded routes, so I’m really hoping that happens. I think that’d be fun to ride it to work or something.”

And he would use the streetcar to get around for more than just work.

“Especially with the first year being free, I plan to be on that thing a lot, hopefully,” Paules said.


Four more streetcar vehicles will arrive from Pennsylvania manufacturer Brookville Equipment Corp. through August, with the system expected to open to the public in late fall.

The City of Milwaukee has secured the operator, TransDev Services Inc., and is beginning to hire and train streetcar operators. At the same time, it plans to train the public on life with a streetcar.

With the help of marketing firm 2-Story Creative Ltd., the city plans to undertake a public information campaign to let businesses, residents and visitors alike know more about the vehicles and how they operate.

The streetcar vehicle mostly shares lanes with vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, who should treat it just like a large vehicle, Korban said. In some spots, it has a dedicated lane. The streetcar obeys the speed limit and traffic signals, has a horn and can extend green lights in some instances. The city plans to install signage along the route to instruct vehicles and bicycles on interacting with the system, and route information signs will also be posted at stops.

Parking is not expected to be heavily impacted by the route.

The hours of operation will be 5 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays, with potential adjustments based on demand, Korban said.

The hope of supporters is the streetcar becomes an everyday part of life in Milwaukee.

“Our job is to make it very simple to use, very clean, very attractive, very safe and organically, it is just going to become part of the culture and part of what people are accustomed to,” Korban said.

Other cities’ experiences

Other cities that have installed streetcars in recent years can provide some clues about how the Milwaukee streetcar may be used.

Cities that get streetcars right realize they are about concentrating new economic activity in an area and attracting talent to the same spot, said Geoff Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates for thoughtful urban expansion.

“If you have a transit system that connects nothing to nowhere, don’t be surprised if no one rides it. It’s not rocket science,” Anderson said. “If you have a transit system where you have a lot of people around it and it connects them to places they want to go, then you’re going to have a lot of people ride it.

“Getting the right kind of development happening around the transit line is a big deal. Understanding that basically, you’re trying to create walkable, mixed-use, vibrant areas along the corridor the streetcar’s going to serve.”

Portland, Oregon’s streetcar, installed in 2001, is hailed as the shining example of a modern streetcar. It transports 4.6 million riders annually on a 7.2-mile network and has driven $4.5 billion in additional market value along the route since 1998, according to economic consulting firm ECONorthwest.

“That’s when we’ve seen it be successful in creating jobs and creating new economic activity is when the public sector is cognizant that they’re trying to create a magnet to organize private sector development around,” Anderson said. 

A city similar in size to Milwaukee, Kansas City, Missouri, has also installed a successful system.

Kansas City’s 2-mile streetcar opened in 2016, and more than 3 million trips have been taken since. The initial route runs from its Union Station through downtown to the River Market North dining and shopping area. Two extensions have been proposed.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has supported the streetcar’s development, said Pam Whiting, vice president of communications at the chamber.

“We saw it as first helping to move people and to connect people with our downtown area, which has been undergoing a great revitalization,” Whiting said. “The second reason that we supported it and continue to support it is because of the economic development that typically follows a fixed line. And that’s been proven to be true in that we’ve had more than $2 billion – that’s billion with a ‘b’ – in development along the streetcar line.”

Additional development is already being floated along the proposed extensions.

“It’s wildly beyond expectations,” she said. “As our downtown has redeveloped, a lot of people are using it to get to work and are giving up their cars and we see people from out of town using it, as well as people in town.”

St. Louis has had a bumpier path to unveiling its streetcar, which was due to open in fall 2017, but delayed by several months.

The refurbishment of the historic streetcars took longer than expected and the employees hired for the system became a drain on the system’s resources, said Joe Edwards, the business executive who has championed the streetcar route.

St. Louis company Clayco stepped up and donated $500,000 in gap funding to move the project toward completion recently. Edwards expects the streetcar to open in about two months, and the projected ridership to be 350,000 per year.

The 2.2-mile route is called the Delmar Loop, and is designed to connect residents and visitors to restaurants, shopping, entertainment and the popular attractions in Forest Park.

“I think a lot of St. Louisans will (ride it) just for fun because there’s nothing like riding something on rails. And then the visitors to St. Louis will like it a lot,” Edwards said. “I think local residents and business people will, too, because they’ll be able to take MetroLink (light rail) here and not have to drive, not have to park. And a lot of younger people and retirees appreciate livable, walkable communities.”

St. Louis has seen additional development along its route already, he said. A $66 million, 14-story apartment building and a $100 million redevelopment project were attributed to its being built.

In Dallas, where a 2.4-mile streetcar line was installed in 2015 to connect the Oak Cliff neighborhood over a bridge to downtown, the city, like Milwaukee, also chose Brookville cars.

“They put in a streetcar that actually is battery powered when it goes over that bridge because it’s a historic bridge and residents didn’t want to see the catenaries on it,” said Dallas council member Lee Kleinman. “Because we ended up with this hybrid electric battery-operated model, the first year they had some tweaks to work out,” but the Brookville cars have generally been problem-free, he said.

Kleinman said the streetcar has had generally positive acceptance, ridership has gradually been increasing, economic development has picked up in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, and the city is talking about adding another segment to connect the Oak Cliff line to its heritage line on the other side of downtown.

“In Oak Cliff, we have seen a lot of development. New restaurants, new multi-family development and other ones on the way,” he said. “That’s what it was intended to do.”

Economic development

A vital component of the success of the streetcar is how it impacts economic development in the corridor it travels, stakeholders say.

“We’re very excited about that it telegraphs development along its route,” said Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development. “We’ve already seen an incredible amount of interest from developers that have expressed interest in building along the line or, in some cases, already have buildings along the line.”

Most developers have responded positively to the streetcar because it reflects a long-term commitment to the route, versus a bus route that could easily be changed overnight, Korban said.

Irgens Partners LLC for example, noted the streetcar in its choice to develop the 25-story BMO Harris tower under construction at North Water and East Wells streets. Josh Jeffers has taken on several major developments along the route, and R2 Cos., owner of the post office building on West St. Paul Avenue, has cited the streetcar as a factor in its redevelopment plans.

While its construction has been delayed by several years, The Couture high-rise apartment development will also be a centerpiece of the streetcar’s transportation network, Marcoux said. He’s not worried about the project’s delays.

“The Lakefront Line is already under construction,” he said. “(Developer Rick Barrett) will get the building out of the ground this year and that will allow plenty of time for The Couture to open and also the Lakefront Line to open.”

“Regarding the streetcar, that we’re preparing right now to have that operable by the year 2020 and we’re tracking on that timeframe,” Rick Barrett said. “It’s actually in following with the original timeframe and we are waiting for our information on financing back with (an application for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan guarantee insurance plan) right now, so everything’s moving along.”

A significant portion of Barrett’s tenants at other buildings are millennials, he said, and they are asking for more urban amenities.

“Every single time we talk to our residents or create a survey for residents out of our buildings, we are constantly being asked by the millennial crowd to push the initiative of more walkable community,” Barrett said. “What I’m thinking is that people … are having happy hour at The Couture and they jump on the streetcar very simply and they get dropped off right at the arena.”

But there has been skepticism among some in the community, including real estate professionals.

Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin executive director Tracy Johnson said while a November member survey showed just 31 percent thought the streetcar would attract riders and spark development along the route, the organization’s members generally support the project now that it’s here.

“The streetcar, I think, is one of those things that people maybe didn’t think it was going to happen,” Johnson said. “So of course…they really didn’t believe that would have an impact. Now that it’s here, they’re optimistic. I do believe that’s a pervasive sentiment. It’s here and we’re going to make the best of it and leverage the benefits that it can bring.”

Opinions abound

The construction on city streets over the past several months has been challenging for Historic Third Ward businesses and residents, said Jim Plaisted, executive director of the Historic Third Ward Association.

But he hasn’t heard any negative feedback on the streetcar itself, since it is expected to bring consumers to Third Ward retailers and restaurants and alleviate the neighborhood’s parking challenges.

“It’s going to be such a positive downtown circulator for the Third Ward, for the Public Market,” Plaisted said. “One of the things we’ve noted is we’re really becoming a weekend destination for people from Chicago and they’re taking the train.”

Rodney Ferguson, chief executive officer and general manager at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, said although it doesn’t go to the casino, the streetcar is an attraction tool to get more people into the city and become more competitive for events like the NBA All-Star Game and the Democratic National Convention.

But Donovan questions the short length of the initial route, which wouldn’t be able to take people to the new arena for those potential events.

“I don’t know that it really takes anyone, at this point, to any particular destination,” Donovan said. “I think there’ll be … somewhat of a honeymoon period where people will want to do it just for the novelty of it, but I assume that will quickly dry up. I have a feeling that once this is open downtown, rush hour is going to be a hell of a mess in downtown Milwaukee.”

Ian Abston, president of millennial consulting company Millennian LLC, disagrees with Donovan. He bought a condo at the Breakwater on East Knapp Street and North Franklin Place after the streetcar was announced, and plans to use the streetcar to get to work, the gym, and to bars and restaurants.

It gives Milwaukee a leg up on future population growth as more residents shift into cities, Abston says. And it could position the city better for tourism.

“The Amtrak from Chicago to Milwaukee is one of the most heavily used Amtrak lines in the nation and we’re dumping people there with zero transportation options,” he said.

Milwaukee’s population growth among those aged 18 to 34 was seventh-lowest in the nation from 2010 to 2015, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution.

“We are getting our asses kicked (in attracting millennials) and the streetcar isn’t a save-all by any means, but at least it’s a step in the right direction,” Abston said. “I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised by ridership. The car is no longer this American freedom box on wheels that it once was. With rideshare, carshare, Uber options out there, (millennials are) just looking for transit options.”

But Megan Taylor, a millennial Milwaukee resident, does not support the streetcar.

Taylor owns and operates Port Washington-based portable restroom company Cans-to-go and Mequon-based Best Waste Solutions. She owns a condo in Walker’s Point, and described the streetcar as a “complete waste of money” that will burden taxpayers if funding doesn’t come through for operations.

“I don’t think we should have taken the funding,” she said. “I mean, look at where we are recently. The City of Milwaukee has failed for the second time now for that (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant. Why are we taking money for a project that’s not going to help boost economic development, not going to spur along the tax base and it’s not even designed for expansion?”

Future expansion

One thing most everyone can agree on is that the initial streetcar route is limited.

The problem is funding.

The Phase 1 route and the Lakefront Line, which is set to open next, cost a total of $128 million to build, which came from federal grants and local tax increment districts. About 80 percent of pre-revenue operational costs for the first 18 months will be funded by a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant, and another CMAQ grant is expected to be funded to cover another 18 months once revenue service begins. The city plans to charge an introductory fare of $1 per ride, and supplement the cost with sponsorships and advertising. The annual operating costs are expected to be about $3.5 million.

In early March, Milwaukee was for the second time turned down for a $20 million federal TIGER grant that would have extended the streetcar another 1.2 miles to the new Milwaukee Bucks arena. But by the end of the month, President Donald Trump had approved $1.5 billion in funding for another round of the program and there was a new opportunity to apply.

“We will certainly be first in line to apply for it for our share of that,” Korban said.

Milwaukee has a long way to go to return to the days of its previous streetcar, which was originally pulled by horses, electrified in 1890 and eventually grew into a large network of hundreds of miles that looked roughly like today’s Milwaukee County Transit System. It ceased operations in 1958, said Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

At its World War II peak, when tires and gasoline were rationed and more workers needed to get to factories, streetcar ridership was 428 million in 1944, he said. That’s about 10 times current MCTS ridership.

Most cities’ streetcar systems went by the wayside at about the same time as Milwaukee’s due to the rise of the automobile, Gurda said.

“Today’s streetcar is much different than the past streetcar,” Polenske said.

“The millennials have made it very clear through their behavior that they don’t like cars; they like mobility through either biking, walking or other modes of transportation such as the streetcar,” Korban said.

The city’s transit-oriented development plan is to have the streetcar extend north to Bronzeville and south to Walker’s Point.

“I’m sure we will be in the next round (of TIGER funding), at a minimum for the extension to the arena, which we’ve already dedicated a local match to of about $20 million,” Marcoux said.

Barrett said the city is not discouraged by the previous TIGER application being turned down, since it had to apply several times to obtain the grant for the Lakefront Line.

“We are undergoing an incredible renaissance and there’s a lot of development here in the heart of the city,” Barrett said. “The streetcar complements that. It’s all about making this city more desirable for those people who work here, who live here and who visit here.” 

How it’s funded

$128 million for Phase 1 and Lakefront Line construction

Federal: $54.9 million in ICE funding

Federal: $14.2 million TIGER VII grant

Local: $9.7 million from Cathedral Square TID

Local: $18.3 million by amending Erie Street TID to 19 years

Local: $31 million from 19-year East Michigan TID

$3.5 million annual operations

Federal: Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant covers 80% of 18 months of pre-revenue costs

Federal: CMAQ grant anticipated for 18 months of revenue service

Local: Potawatomi to cover fares for first year

Local: Other corporate sponsorships for stations and routes

Local: Advertising on side of streetcar

Sign up for the BizTimes email newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display