Public Policy Forum Blog

Some Updated Thoughts on the Milwaukee Streetcar…

Momentum continues to build for Milwaukee's streetcar project with the recent award of $14 million in federal funding to finance an extension to the lakefront and the selection of a vendor to produce the streetcar vehicles. In fact, while the project has been overshadowed recently by the new arena, it continues to progress to an expected groundbreaking this spring.

In the meantime, my own thoughts on the project still vacillate between excitement and concern. My concern continues to center around the viability of the initial 2.1-mile starter line and the potential that it will intensify – rather than quell – the political turmoil we have already experienced over the notion of pursuing streetcars in the first place. 

A recent Politico article on Charlotte's experience with a 1.5-mile starter line illustrates that fear. For supporters, the new line's ability to significantly exceed initial ridership projections has been cited as evidence of its value and the need to build more. For opponents, the $37 million cost – when measured against the 47,000 monthly rides – is evidence of unnecessary public spending and misplaced priorities. 

Until the Charlotte line is built out – at a projected $100 million cost over the next decade – it's probably unfair to deem it a success or a failure. But that's the problem – building it out will require a leap of faith that can't be supported by the initial experience, yet not building it out likely will doom it to criticism that it's nothing but an "amusement park ride" that serves little transportation purpose.      

On a more optimistic note, my experience riding the streetcar system in Amsterdam earlier this month allowed me to experience the benefits of a comprehensive streetcar system and the promise such a system holds for Milwaukee. 

While not being practical or necessary for short trips of a half mile or less, my wife and I found Amsterdam's streetcars to be a great option for trips within the city center of a half mile to two miles. In fact, our Amsterdam experience allowed us to vividly picture the utility of a Milwaukee streetcar for trips from downtown to Brady Street or the lakefront to Old World Third Street. We also found that their operation in mixed traffic did not make them too slow, and that they were both fun and convenient.

Of course, therein again lies the problem with our initial starter line – it won’t extend as far as Brady Street or Old World Third Street. Consequently, it’s still to be determined whether starting with 2.1 miles will capture the public's imagination and build momentum for future extensions, or whether the initial lack of utility will stop future extensions in their tracks.

In Amsterdam, streetcars share the road with bikes, cars, mopeds, and pedestrians. The planned Milwaukee line also will operate in mixed traffic.    
In Amsterdam, streetcars share the road with bikes,             Amsterdam's streetcars typically use the center lane, while
cars, mopeds, and pedestrians. The planned Milwaukee       the planned streetcar line in Milwaukee currently call for
line also will operate in mixed traffic.                                    use of both curb-aligned and center lanes.

Rob Henken