Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker previously made his feelings on City of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s desire for streetcars known via Owen and Charlie. Now, it’s my turn to get the (expanded) Walker e-mail:
Two weeks ago, I was part of a group that traveled from Milwaukee to visit transit operations in Portland and Denver. While the sizes of these cities are similar to Milwaukee, the demographics are much different. According to 2006 census estimates, Portland had a 1.5% population increase while Denver went up by 2.4%. Milwaukee, on the other hand, went down by 4%. These growing urban centers have much greater congestion problems than we do in Milwaukee.
The transit system in Portland is paid for largely through a payroll tax that funds the bus and light rail system.
The streetcar system opened in 2001. It cost $56.9 million and there were no federal funds used to start the system. The streetcars are subsidized by a combination of support from the Tri-Met system and aid from the City of Portland and local business owners. Most of the streetcar line runs in a fare-free zone.
In Denver, the bus and light rail systems are funded through a 1% sales tax on all of 7 counties and part of an eighth county in the metro Denver area. In addition, one of the most requested additions to the system is a Bus Rapid Transit line between Denver and Boulder.
Other systems were mentioned on the trip, including Tampa (which was featured in a publication handed out in Portland). Tampa has a 2.4 mile system that cost $63 million and was opened in 2002.
Last year the number of riders declined 10%. A $4.75 million endowment originally set up to operate the streetcar system for 10 years is losing $1 million per year. The City of Tampa is not willing to put any more money into the system.
Bus Rapid Transit is Best
While the systems in Portland and Denver were nice, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is still the best option for Milwaukee. BRT works well in other cities: Boston, Kansas City, Miami, Santa Monica, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Eugene, Los Angeles, Oakland, etc. It is more cost effective, yet has many of the same attractions of a fixed rail system.
A report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the federal government compared light rail and BRT and found that BRT capital costs are as little as 2% of those of rail. The report on BRT (which uses Denver for part of its data) makes a strong case to “think rail, use buses.”
Furthermore, a 1998 lawsuit alleged that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation disproportionately funded freeways with federal funds while ignoring transit investments that would otherwise benefit minorities and low-income individuals. The BRT plan is the only option that directly benefits the areas referenced in the 1998 lawsuit.
Bus System Needs Help
The current bus system needs help. While the $91.5 million cannot be used to operate the bus system, it can be used to replace existing routes with new lines that improve and upgrade the bus system.
Conversely, the Mayor’s plan – which covers a 3-mile area in downtown Milwaukee – would use approximately half of the federal funds for a streetcar system. This system would ultimately compete with the bus system for state and federal funding.
All of the data shows that the people most dependent on transit live in the north and northwestern parts of the City of Milwaukee. These individuals would not directly benefit from a streetcar system, but would benefit from an improved and upgraded bus transit system.
The Mayor’s original plan does, however, propose using about half of the federal funds on BRT. I suggest that we take the parts of each plan where we are close to agreement and merge them together. My plan spends $59.5 million of the $91.5 million on BRT. We can combine our routes and debate about the remaining $32 million on another day. That would be a real compromise.
Future Vision for Mass Transit
Finally, I want to share with you a long-term vision for action needed to protect and improve the transit system in Milwaukee County:
· Lobby state government to capture the growth in the existing sales tax collected on motor vehicle related sales ($103.5 million statewide in 2009/2011 biennial budget) and apply it to transit (about half would go to Milwaukee County Transit System).
· Move forward with a pilot phase of Bus Rapid Transit plan that uses $59.5 million of the $91.5 million.
· Expand BRT throughout the major corridors of Milwaukee County over the next five to ten years.
As always, I look forward to your comments on this important matter. I thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the issue of mass transit.
Time for my two cents. Street-level rail does not make an ounce of sense. Unless you have a strip of land (which Milwaukee does NOT have), you take away at least one lane from the street, whether that is parking or driving. The fact that choo-choos automatically have the right of way screws up traffic further. The only way to change a route is to rip up the existing tracks and lay new tracks. The route that the Milk Carton wants is utterly stupid as the only thing it does is connect the Bradley Center and the perpetually-empty convention center with the perpetually-empty train station (never mind that they are all within walking distance of each other). The history of downtown-specific transit is one of utter failure.
I’m not exactly sold on buses either. Many of the MCTS buses do nothing but move air from one part of the county to the other. The one advantage they have over trains, be they trolleys, that commuter rail the lefties are also trying to jam down our throats despite the facts that Kenosha is more-aligned with Chicago than either Racine or Milwaukee and that Racine is pretty much its own little island, is that there is almost no effort or cost to change the routes to reflect changes.
Personally, I’d tell the feds to take that $91 million and buy back some of the Treasury bonds that Red China has.