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Why Did Milwaukee Get Rid of its Streetcars?

Michael Hicks, Flickr

Late last week, a contract for the operation of the Milwaukee County Transit System was extended for an additional year. 

County Executive Chris Abele made the announcement amid appeals over the awarding of the future contract to the for-profit, Texas-based MV Transportation. The nonprofit Milwaukee Transport Services (MTS) has held the contract since the public transportation became fully public in the 1970s.

This controversy over transit’s operation isn’t the first time the operation of transit has been a complicated question.

Abby Callard, an assistant editor at Milwaukee Magazine, wrote an article on the history of public transit funding in the Milwaukee area (written prior to last week's developments) in the November issue.

She says the city's transit system came out of a grassroots campaign, led by George Walker, the namesake of Walker’s Point, in 1860.

The first streetcars were carts pulled by horses. But they went electric after the electric companies realized they needed to use, or lose, what they generated. To turn a profit, hundreds of miles of tracks were laid throughout Milwaukee and its suburbs, reaching Watertown and East Troy.

"A lot of people don’t really realize when you look at it now, that there were hundreds of miles of track, and you could get all the way out to East Troy on one streetcar from downtown Milwaukee," Callard says.

But soon the electric companies realized they could make more money by selling electricity to homeowners. The streetcars vanished by the 1950s and were replaced by buses.

Callard says the heyday of the Milwaukee County Transit System was in 1982, where quality of service and ridership were high. Twenty years later, the system took a turn for the worse.

“The funding took a dive,” Callard says. “That was when the whole county pension scandal started happening, so the county had to tighten up its budget. So there was less funding. And another thing that happened was that Scott Walker was elected county exec, and he’s not too favorable to public transit and certainly isn’t at the state level, either.”

Abby Callard is the assistant editor at Milwaukee Magazine.