Milwaukee’s really fantastic transit… of the future

Milwaukee is a really fantastic city. Having had the chance to get to known the city more than ever before over the past year I have come to really appreciate it: the beer flows freely, the architecture is unique and stunning, and the location–along the southern end of Lake Michigan and within an hours drive or so from both Madison and Chicago–is ideal for both in- and out-of-town adventures. But woe be those who go to Milwaukee without a car and expect to leave Downtown or the Third Ward. The city has notoriously bad transportation options and improvements are meek. Although some improvements and updates have come to light bringing Milwaukee’s transit back under scrutiny what fascinates me most about the dearth of transit in Milwaukee is not the dearth itself, rather the amazing potential that exists there. Milwaukee has an awesome transportation system; it just doesn’t exist yet.

A note of comedic cynicism the Milwaukee alderman representing the city’s core, Bob Bauman, used to discuss the fledgling Milwaukee streetcar at the Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers’ (WiscARP) joint meeting with the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association this fall makes my point about Milwaukee well: the irony of the city is that it, solidly blue city on the political spectrum, in a solidly progressive (over the long run at least) state is far behind cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City when it comes to transit development; Salt Lake City is, as Bauman said, is so conservative that it doesn’t even need talk radio. Milwaukee isn’t being held back by lack of interest in investment, but a political antipathy and public apathy that produces no results. Investment continues to be put into road projects and an exhausted public is beginning to lose sight of the end goals in face of a severely partisan government.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s initiative to increase capacity on the section of I-94 running westward from Milwaukee in the suburbs of Waukesha and Jefferson County has come to embody this political and public conflict. The state government and WiscDOT have been pushing the $1 billion plus project despite the protests of advocacy groups, municipal groups in Milwaukee, and policy makers in Milwaukee based on flimsy evidence (at best). It has become a wearisome process fighting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s office. Progressive programs are shot down wholesale and there seems to be no give in his strongly conservative ethics on all matters.

A vintage image of an old Milwaukee streetcar with the city hall visible in the middle ground (found on Pintrest).

A vintage image of an old Milwaukee streetcar with the city hall visible in the middle ground (found on Pintrest).

Creating something that seems both plausible plays a huge role in winning over the public. There is no question that car-oriented projects get public support, because that is the norm and imagining the alternative can be hard. Planning advocate and journalist Angie Schmitt penned an interesting piece recently for the Streetsblog Network where she ruminates about what that $1 billion plus could do if used for transit instead of highways. This is a good place to begin thinking about a plan and fighting the WiscDOT proposal for I-94, because available information helps opponents better paint a coherent picture of the alternative. With a clear budget in mind, comparable projects to base cost projections on, and a whole host of new and old ideas for transit in Milwaukee a new image of Milwaukee’s transit future could be key to making change happen.  How far can $1 billion go to improve transit in Milwaukee and what will that look like for long-term investment.

There is a laundry list of potential projects that could be started with the money allocated for the proposed I-94 expansion. These include everything from commuter/suburban rail routes to bus rapid transit lines connecting Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. But winning over the public will require making sure opponents fight the I-94 expansion with ideas that produce results for the greatest range of users, maximize economic benefit, ease congestion all over Milwaukee, and create the most bang for the available buck.

First: invest heavily in suburban and interurban lines from central Milwaukee,* rather than focus on high-speed rail proposals for interurban rail. High-speed rail, despite its benefits, doesn’t address the immediate needs of most people traveling in and around Milwaukee and conventional rail lines will do that. Plus, focusing on a few specific routes and corridors still provide big steps forward in improving the prospects of future high-speed rail in the Midwest while making gains for normal transit users. The KRM Commuter Rail route from Kenosha to Milwaukee is one of these; another is from Downtown Milwaukee west to downtown Madison via Waukesha and Sun Prairie.

These two routes–let’s call them the Lakeshore Service and the Capital City Service–would form not only the backbone of Southeast Wisconsin’s transit, but also play a big role in improving infrastructure necessary to introduce more service types. Starting with these two lines future expansions could include more suburban/commuter lines from central Milwaukee. Possibilities include extensions of the Lakeshore Service to Sheboygan via Port Washington, a separate line to Fond Du Lac (which could connect to an interurban line from Fond Du Lac to Green Bay via Oshkosh and Appleton), and the introduction of new intercity rail services out of Chicago (including high-speed rail extending to the Twin Cities and conventional rail options between Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay).

Southeast Wisconsin Rail

Potential interurban/suburban rail from Milwaukee – green: KRM Commuter route (solid) with potential extension to Sheboygan (dashed), red: Capital City Service to Madison, grey: Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service (solid) with potential extension to Madison (dashed), purple (dashed): potential route to Fond Du Lac. Additional routes (HSR to Minneapolis/St. Paul and conventional rail to Green Bay) shown as black and dark grey arrows. Union Pacific North shown in blue.

Financially speaking even the first two initially lines would cost well over a $1 billion to complete in full. Based on projections for a similar Metra line in south suburban Chicago this might cost anywhere from $1.6-1.8 billion. That however could be split between six counties, two states, multiple municipalities, the federal government, and the private rail lines. This would mean only a portion of our theoretical billion dollar budget would be used on these two initial projects. This is an immediate first step that provides need inter-city service options for multiple lines and commuter rail along two populated corridors for Milwaukee and Madison.

While rail is probably the best option for developing an initial interurban and suburban transportation service within the city itself it seems most prudent to invest in effective but more fiscally prudent options than streetcars (the big project proposal at the moment); this means buses and especially bus rapid transit (BRT). A lot has been put into touting the Milwaukee streetcar project, but the project, which has potential extensions included in the plans, is incredibly in scope and really only brings improved transit into the city’s tight core and although it will connect import sites in Milwaukee it does nothing to connect the neighborhoods to the city center and neighborhoods to neighborhoods.

Downtown Milwaukee Transit

This image shows potential transportation options in central Milwaukee including suburban/interurban rail (red, green, purple), BRT (black), and the potential extent of a Milwaukee streetcar system (solid blue is the first phase route, dashed blue is the second phase, and dashed light blue is the potential full system).

Milwaukee County Transit operates the current bus system, which is the only existing service in town. Recently, a federal grant was awarded to provide the system enough money to implement express bus service along certain in the city. While a good start, the money only guarantees these services through 2017. Some of the routes targeted for the express service could be great places to begin planning a multi-route BRT system to complement a rail system that connects the surrounding suburbs and nearby cities, a local bus network, and central-city streetcar.

While a streetcar works well for the neighborhood’s surrounding Milwaukee’s core, the introduction of BRT would provide Milwaukee with a high-quality transit option for significantly cheaper than a city-wide network of streetcars or light-rail. Its a great fiscally responsible transit option that works to complement other options well (check this map of potential Milwaukee BRT routes), moves people quickly, and can be used for trips all over the city, not just Downtown. A BRT systems of approximately 30 miles in Milwaukee would in all likelihood require less than half a billion dollars to construct in full (that’s when estimated at slightly more than the average cost per mile to build BRT in the USA).

This map shows the transit system in Stuttgart city, which has a population similar to Milwaukee. The extent of this system is dramatically greater than that available in Milwaukee.

This map shows the transit system in Stuttgart city, which has a population similar to Milwaukee. The extent of this system is dramatically greater than that available in Milwaukee.

It isn’t prudent for Milwaukee to push streetcars and high-speed rail as initial transit priorities when so few options exist in the first place. Streetcars cost almost twice as much as BRT to build per mile and if the goal is to improve transit in Milwaukee with maximum impact it makes the most sense to make available transit dollars go as far as possible. If Milwaukee were so lucky, the $1 billion being pegged to rebuild and expand I-94 would instead cover numerous projects including anywhere from 25-35 miles of BRT routes, the reconstruction of the Milwaukee Intermodal Station (estimated at approx. $23 million) leaving half a billion dollars plus for intercity rail development. In fact, assuming the second phase of the initial streetcar system has a similar cost to the first phase, taking $100 million plus to guarantee its construction would still leave a significant amount of money to begin the former two projects mentioned.

Such investments would bring Milwaukee’s transit system in line with those in similarly sized cities globally. Stuttgart, Germany for example has both suburban rail and urban rail connections in addition to regional rail and high-speed rail connections. Lyon, France too has a 4-line metro and 6-line tram system in addition to 8 trolleybus lines and a regular bus system and is situated along one of the world’s most successful high-speed rail corridors.

Milwaukee deserves a better transit system and it could easily have it if only the money was put up for it. But, imagining what is possible helps to make the call for something cohesive. Better transit in Milwaukee need not be difficult to achieve nor inexplicably expensive. It would bring the city in line with its peers globally as mentioned, but it would also facilitate ever important connections to other cities in the region. It would equalize access to jobs in Milwaukee and improve access to jobs across the region and improve the city’s ability to market itself for new economic growth and visitors.

Milwaukee is awesome and has an awesome transit system… although it’s still in the future.

*In most instances the term commuter rail would probably be used to describe what I call suburban or interurban rail. I prefer the latter terms, because I think it imagines rail based transit from an urban core into surrounding suburbs as serving commuters and other users at all times of day at all times of year.

Old Chicago Post Office back on the market: what to do, what to do?

Any readers checking the latest news from Curbed Chicago will know by now that the Old Chicago Post Office is back on the market. Previous owner, British developer Bill Davies, put the massive building back on sale after not trying very hard struggling to develop the site. Regardless of what happens now, whoever buys the property will have to spend an additional hundred of millions if not billions of dollars on redevelopment. And, the real question stands, what will go there?

Old Chicago Post Office

There is laundry list of desired projects for this site. Some Chicagoans have looked forward to Walgreens moving its headquarters from suburban Deerfield here. Other proposals include artists spaces and a tech hub, while others stick to the classic list of condos, hotel, retail; and, of course, the Chicago casino has been included amongst these ideas.

The ultimate result is going to be big. We can only hope that the developers have the foresight to put something on this site that not only enhances life in the neighborhood, but also the city as a whole. This is a private property and the city can’t impose too much on what happens once somebody buys. That said, it is one hell of a private property and it would be delusional of both the city and developers to think both parties shouldn’t have a stake in this.

This is what the first phase of initial plans for the Old Post Office in Chicago proposed by British developer Bill Davies initially looked like in the summer of 2013.

This is what the first phase of initial plans for the Old Post Office in Chicago proposed by British developer Bill Davies initially looked like in the summer of 2013.

The city and public need to take a stance on this project and make it clear to the developers that this has to have elements that improve public well-being and access in the surrounding area. This project has the potentially to radically change the way the area of the West Loop around Union Station functions and should be part of that change.

If Chicago ever needed a proper department of urban planning it is moments like these.

Transportation and green space cannot be left out of any project that goes here and much like the agreement made by the developers of the Chicago Spire to build DuSable Park and the Lincoln Park Apple Store to rebuild the head house of the North/Clybourn Red Line stop, the development of green space and better transit infrastructure in the area should be pegged to this project.

The site includes prime river front property, which by no means should be cut off from public use and would be ideal for providing a small green oasis along the water in an area that is increasingly dense with little new green space. It’s fair to assume at least one if not two high-rise buildings may at some point be included in new plans for this site, including along the river, but as plans released last summer and report on by DNAInfo Chicago reveal, the smaller plot of land along the river north of the Eisenhower Expressway would accommodate the smallest of the potential skyscrapers (a mere 40 story tall building). Any project should keep riverfront construction to the smaller plot to preserve the larger plot south of the Eisenhower Expressway along Harrison Street for parkland.

Additionally, any new construction must take advantage of the city’s Transit Oriented Development ordinance. Considering the site is adjacent to Union Station, the proposed CTA bus terminal, intercity bus termini, the Forest Park Branch of the Blue Line, and a mere four blocks from the LaSalle stop on the Loop and Ogelvie Transit Center each there is no excuse for the amount of parking that was included in the original proposal (depending on the date it ranged from 4,000-5,500 plus spots). Part of the initial proposals included building parking into the Old Post Office building and a new garage on the west side of the building on the plot at the intersection of Harrison and Canal streets. That can be scratched and built into whatever new office, hotel, or residential tower desired. This would work into increasing the amount of available office space to do something that is long overdue: demolish the tower above Union Station on the 200 block of South Canal Street.

Olf Post Office Site


Removing this 26 story tower from the scene would allow Amtrak, Metra, and the City of Chicago to finally move forward and vastly improve the aesthetic and logistical function of the station, because it would remove the cluster of support columns and other impediments from directly above the busiest part of the station while allowing in natural light. It is a rare opportunity, but so much new commercial office space will be developed in the same four-square blocks that offices in this building could easily be moved to new offices at the Old Post Office making for an easy demolition of the Union Station tower.

The development of the Old Post Office really should be pegged to the redevelopment of Union Station and somehow include things like better direct access to the new bus terminal (something I believe should be made bigger and include intercity buses), new auxiliary entrances to the south platforms along Van Buren Street, and perhaps most import and redevelopment of the Clinton Blue Line stop to make the station entrance bigger, more visible, better lit, and build out auxiliary entrances at Canal Street and/or in the Old Post Office site.

This site is a big one, physically and emotionally. One way or another it will change the city and collectively Chicagoans can only hope the developers are smart, socially and environmentally conscientious, and willing to work with the city to invest in the area around the site that benefits their private interests and the public interests of the city as a whole. This is going to be a great urban planning project and challenge. This new update should be fun to follow.

And on one final note, I really hope Antunovich Associates are not included in any new projects; if they are we’re guaranteed nothing more than suburbia in the sky.

500 signatures against the Illiana Tollroad – ALMOST THERE!


Let’s make a collective goal: 500 signatures against the Illiana Tollroad by December 31! Right now!

The PETITION I began protesting the economically, socially, and environmentally unsustainable project has 423 signatures and only needs 77 more people to sign to reach 500 total.

It would be great to have such a large number of people signing up to show their opposition to this project. Experts reasonably believe the Illiana will prove to be a huge financial burden and ultimately loss for the states of Illinois and Indiana with little to no positive economic or social benefits while hurting the region’s environment. Traffic reduction is predicted to be unreasonably low for a project of this scale (with some projections predicting congestion being reduced by a mere 1%) with few trucking companies, the primary target for this project, using the road. The road will cut through small far south suburban communities, dangerously close to protected wildlife areas, and take precious state resources from more profitable projects in Chicagoland.* Indeed, the US Public Interest Research Group (US P.I.R.G.) included it on its list of highway boondoggles.

If we want to stop this, we need to look not to Gov. Pat Quinn, but Governor-elect Bruce Rauner. He is sworn into office on January 12, 2015. Let’s make sure 500 plus signatures and a call to stop this project are amongst the first things sitting on his desk at the State House early next year. Sign the PETITION, share it with friends, and show the Governor-elect and state government that this project is unpopular, unreasonable, and harmful.

Link to the PETITION.

*While it is unclear what other projects might be hurt by lost financing to the Illiana Tollroad, I wanted to include a list of projects proposed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which opposes the Illiana, for Chicago’s South and Southwest suburbs to demonstrate what is potentially at stake.

  • Red Line South Extension: although this project is contained entirely within the City of Chicago, the project would extend the CTA’s busiest ‘L’ line south from the current terminus at 95th Street to a location near 130th Street. Whatever the new terminus, it would regardless add 4.5-5.5 miles to the Red Line and bring many South Side and south suburban communities closer to the Loop and the region at large.
  • Metra Heritage Corridor Improvements: This project (with an estimated cost of apprx. $200 million) would add service and reduce delays and conflicts between passenger and freight trains in Southwest Chicagoland. These projects (which include CREATE projects) would be a boon for rail passengers and logistics in the region at a fraction of the cost of the Illiana Tollroad (estimated at over $700 million if not more).
  • Orange Line South Extension: Another project entirely within the City of Chicago, the Orange Line extension would extend the line south of its Midway Airport Terminus to Ford City Mall (apprx. 75th Street). Much like the Red Line though, it would bring better rapid transit closer to Southwest Side and southwest suburban communities and include improved intermodal connections via more access to Midway Airport. The project is project at a little more than half the expected contributions needed for the Illiana Tollroad.
  • The Southeast Service: This is a proposed new Metra line that would bring rail service to Chicago’s South Suburbs. With an estimated cost of $800 million it is not much more expensive than the Illiana Tollroad and provides congestion reducing rail options to Chicago’s suburbs, environmentally friendly alternatives to driving, and far less impact to local communities. The proposed route as it currently stands is from Balmoral Park to LaSalle Street Station via Crete and Gresham (see link).
  • Southwest Service and Rock Island District Extensions: both these extensions would bring more rail service to Chicago’s far Southwest Suburbs. They include many of the benefits of the Southeast Service mentioned above and together cost about the same as the expected contribution necessary for the Illiana Tollroad.

Link to the PETITION.