Forum on the Fate of Public Transit in Milwaukee

Jul 22, 2015

Opponents of the downtown Milwaukee streetcar project said they're launching a petition drive to block any potential expansion of the project. That word came after a previous drive fell short of its goal, amid questions over whether it would have carried any legal weight.

Even with plans for the first phase of the streetcar moving forward, many supporters say the project really only represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the challenges of transit in the Milwaukee area.

At a recent regional transit and economic development forum, moderated by Mitch Teich and organized by the group MetroGo!, panelists David Frank, director of Economic Policy and Development for the City of Minneapolis; Mike Schipper, deputy general manager for Engineering and Project Management of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority; Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum and Linda Gorens-Levey of General Capital Group discussed the fate of public transit in Milwaukee.

Rob Henken said that traffic congestion is not the biggest issue in Milwaukee (although folks commuting in the morning and afternoon may beg to differ), but rather the bigger issue is the disconnect between the central city and the suburbs.

"We ought to be thinking about how to improve the quality of transit that might make a difference in terms of allowing that single mom, who has to drop her kid off at daycare an opportunity to still use a fast, effective transit system to get to a job in Brookfield or New Berlin in a reasonable amount of time," Henken said.

Milwaukee is trying to find more efficient ways to transport people. The panelists pointed to a new study set to examine the idea of bus rapid transit in the regional as another significant step forward.

"And I could sit here and argue to you that bus rapid transit is not as effective as light rail," Henken said. "But the fact is it's a heck of a lot less expensive, and it's a way to introduce that rapid transit element that again might capture the public's imagination about the potential of mass transit."

Minneapolis and Cleveland, both of which boast multiple modes of public transit, were cited as important models Milwaukee would be well-served to study.

"We’re not trying to force anyone to get out of their car. We want to make it a choice for more people not to have to. The more people who can have that choice, the more that employer thinks they’ll be able to attract the workers of tomorrow," David Frank said.

Mike Schipper of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority said that developing a new transit system is going to take time, effort and money. "You could follow us and spend 50 or 60 years messing around, or you could figure out how to get a project that you can actually finance, fund, and build," he said.