Common Council action would still be needed to start construction, probably next year. But if the federal government approves preliminary engineering, it would be the biggest step yet for a rail transit project in Milwaukee, after the failure of previous plans for light rail and guided electric buses.
The preliminary engineering process would flesh out more financial and operating details of the system. If approved, construction would start in 2011 and service would start in 2013.
Mayor Tom Barrett has pushed for the line since 2007. Modern streetcars resemble light rail vehicles, run in streets and are powered by overhead electric wires.
The city would use $54.9 million in long-unused federal transit aid, matched by $9.7 million in tax-incremental financing, to build the initial leg from the downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station to the lower east side. At the same time, the city is seeking another $25 million federal grant, matched by $6.5 million in tax-incremental financing, to extend the line north to E. Brady St. and north from the depot to the development at the former Pabst Brewery.
Those extensions would boost operating costs from $2.6 million to $3.8 million a year. City officials say fares and state and federal aid would pay most of those costs, with the rest coming from the city parking fund.
Project manager Mark Kaminski said the fixed-route streetcar line would attract downtown economic development in a way that buses don't. Kaminski also said modern streetcars can carry more people more efficiently and at lower operating costs than buses.
The only opposition on the four-member study panel came from Brian Dranzik, administration director for the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and Public Works. His boss, County Executive Scott Walker, has been a steadfast opponent of rail transit.
Dranzik echoed Walker's fears that streetcars would steal riders and state aid from the existing Milwaukee County Transit System.
City Public Works Commissioner Jeff Mantes said similar systems in other cities boosted ridership on public buses, rather than competing with them.
Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman, whose district would include most of the line, noted later that the streetcar would not duplicate any existing bus route, and the city is not proposing to replace any bus routes. Mantes said the state transit aid structure would not put the streetcar line in direct competition with the county buses for dollars. Walker later said it was naïve to believe state and federal aid to the streetcar line would not affect aid to the bus system.
"This will serve a limited, limited number of people, predominantly in the downtown area, and would not help the people who need the greatest help from the bus system," Walker said in a voice mail.
Together, the initial line and extensions would be within a quarter-mile of every downtown hotel, 91 percent of occupied downtown retail space, 90 percent of occupied downtown office space, 77 percent of downtown housing and 77 percent of downtown parking lots and garages, said Kaminski and City Engineer Jeff Polenske said. The western extension would serve the Shops of Grand Avenue, Midwest Airlines Center and Bradley Center.
The city is seeking another $70 million in federal dollars to extend the line north to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as a separate federal grant to plan future extensions.