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Hometown U.S.A.: Milwaukee

Mayor dreams of an era past with streetcar plan

He thinks a new line of bright, modern vehicles can revitalize the city front. Critics call the idea an 'urban planning fad.'

November 04, 2012|By Richard Wronski
  • An artist’s rendering of a streetcar in downtown Milwaukee.
An artist’s rendering of a streetcar in downtown Milwaukee. (City of Milwaukee )

The last time a streetcar rattled along the rails in Milwaukee, in 1958, the Braves played at County Stadium and Pabst, Schlitz and Miller were the brewers that made the city famous.

Today the Brewers play at Miller Park and the Braves are long gone, but streetcars may be making a comeback.

Mayor Tom Barrett is the prime mover behind Milwaukee's plan to build a brand-new streetcar system. Bright, modern vehicles would traverse a two-mile route through the city's east side, downtown and historic Third Ward, a former warehouse area now popular for its shops and restaurants.

Barrett, who believes flashy streetcars can revitalize Milwaukee's city front, points to the popularity of the 10-year-old system in Portland, Ore. Today's streetcars, Barrett says, are more about attracting attention than providing transportation.

"I look at this as an economic development tool," Barrett said. "Look at Portland. That system has aided in spurring development and growth, which is what all communities are looking for now."

Portland's system has been a model for cities across the country. Among them are Kansas City, Mo., which is planning a $93-million system, and St. Louis, which has a $43-million line in the works.

For now, transit advocates are focusing attention on Milwaukee, where Barrett's grand scheme is advancing, but not without opposition. Foes have dubbed the plan "A Streetcar Named Disaster."

Critics have attacked the economic development argument in Milwaukee and other cities. "Streetcars are the latest urban planning fad," said Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Milwaukee's system would cost nearly $65 million, most of which would come from federal funds and the rest from tax increment financing. Theoretically, the streetcar line would enhance the value of property along its route.

Transportation experts agree that modern streetcars, like those in Seattle or Toronto, or even traditional systems in San Francisco and New Orleans, have cachet, or a "coolness" factor.

"A lot of cities are looking for that elusive type of 'beachfront property' benefit that can attract residents, that draws people," said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the American Public Transit Assn., which represents transportation agencies.

Barrett rejects the notion that streetcars are outdated and buses do the job better. "That's one of the misconceptions," Barrett said. Critics, he said, "have an image of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' Something from 1955." (The film version actually premiered in 1951.)

Barrett acknowledges current plans are just the start. He envisions extending the line farther north along the city's east side, and also through more of the downtown area.

Although Barrett has strong support on the city's Common Council, one member calls the project a boondoggle and is crusading against the streetcars.

Alderman Bob Donovan said he'd rather see the money go toward improving Milwaukee's streets or the existing bus system.

"I just feel this is a waste of money," Donovan said. "I've been an alderman 12 years now. I've gotten calls on everything under the sun. I've never gotten a call saying, 'What Milwaukee needs is to bring back the streetcars.'"

Meanwhile, at the Milwaukee Public Market, one of the main attractions in the Third Ward, shopkeepers are excited about the prospect of streetcars rolling in with more customers.

"It's amazing to me how many people who live locally still haven't spent much time downtown or in the Third Ward or even been to the public market," said Phil Bilodeau, proprietor of the Thief Wine Shop. "I think anything that would make it more accessible to people is great."

Others aren't sold.

"I think it's an interesting idea, but I don't know if it's a good idea. It depends on how much money and effort they have to spend on it," said Stephen Ladish, 31. "I think it would be more for show than anything."

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