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Take your pick: Mass transit optimism or a touch of skepticism for southeastern Wisconsin

electric bus charging system
Courtesy of Milwaukee County Transit System
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A new electric bus charging system being tested in Wauwatosa.

Many public officials are expressing optimism about having more mass transit in southeastern Wisconsin, but some people in the private sector have their doubts.

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Image from a video provided by the Milwaukee County North-South Transit Enhancement Study
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The draft recommended route for the North-South BRT is between Bayshore Mall and the Northwestern Mutual buildings in Franklin, mainly traveling in a dedicated lane along 27th Street.

The regional transportation partnership known as MobiliSE held its annual fall get-together Thursday. On the side of optimism for mass transit, there's Donna Brown-Martin, transportation director for Milwaukee County. She said the BRT — the east-west electric bus system being developed between downtown and the regional medical center in Wauwatosa — will be operating by sometime next year.

She says she's also excited about a planned north-south rapid bus system mainly along 27th Street because there's a lot of potential riders there.
"Within a half-mile of the 27th Street corridor, 118,000 residents. That's a lot of people! Forty-nine thousand jobs and that's growing, four major medical facilities, 63 schools K-12, 75% of residents in this corridor are people of color. So, if you're trying to make sure you're addressing the needs of everyone, you are," Brown-Martin told the audience.

Brown-Martin said her department is getting ready to send its application for funding to pay for most of the $148 million project to the Federal Transit Administration. The Milwaukee County North-South Transit Enhancement Study is also taking public comment on the proposal though Sunday, October 2.

In contrast, County Executive David Crowley announced budget plans Thursday to cut some other local county bus and taxi services.

Also seemingly on the road to growth is the FlexRide Milwaukee program, which provides vans to take hundreds of Milwaukee north side residents on low-cost commutes to jobs in Menomonee Falls. MobliSE Executive Director Dave Steele said thanks to a $4 million federal grant funneled to his group by the state, FlexRide next year will be a transit option on the south side as well.

"We are working with the city of Franklin, the city of Oak Creek, the South Suburban Chamber of Commerce to identify the next service zone in the south suburbs," Steele outlined.

Somewhere in the middle on the status of mass transit for the Milwaukee area is Greg Nickerson. He's chairman of the Bader Rutter, an advertising and marketing agency located on North Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. He said the Hiawatha Amtrak trains between Milwaukee and Chicago are wonderful and wishes the downtown Milwaukee streetcar, known as The Hop, went closer to his office. However, he's not satisfied with mass transit from Mitchell Airport.

"To be honest here, it's not nearly as good of an experience as it should be, compared to other cities. There's no light rail, there's no real way to get downtown from the airport, unless you want to take over to the Amtrak station and catch one of those trains. It's just not good," Nickerson said.

The Milwaukee County Transit System does offer bus service between the airport and downtown.

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Chuck Quirmbach
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WUWM
The MobiliSE forum Thursday at Marquette University.

On the more pessimistic end of the transit spectrum is Austin Ramirez, CEO of Husco International in Waukesha.

"Our employees all drive to work. They don't take the bus. There are not bus options. I think public transit is great in urban environments, when you can connect high-density areas. But for me as an employer in the suburbs, my folks drive. If you were to ask me what is the one thing I'd like to see that would help my employees, it actually wouldn't be transit — it'd be affordable housing in Waukesha, so that our folks could actually live closer to where they work," Ramirez said.

One thing going for transit in the region is that the private and public sectors are talking to each other about it. Another thing is the current surge in federal money for transportation.

But those factors are up against car culture — for those who can afford to own and operate a vehicle or desire to have one as soon as possible.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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