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.