Are street cars a good use of transit dollars? A look at The Hop after a year in Milwaukee



Illustration by Daniel Downey

On a sunny July weekend, The Hop was the hottest thing in town. Standing crowds filled the streetcars of Milwaukee and filled the platform at Cathedral Square on the way to and around Bastille Day. Almost 9,000 people rode The Hop that Saturday, more than four times the average daily attendance for the first seven months of this year. Mayor Tom Barrett, who proposed the streetcar and pushed it through to completion, trumpeted the new summit. After decades of debate, it looked like Milwaukee finally had a modern rail transportation system.

And yet, as The Hop nears its first anniversary on November 2, questions remain as to whether streetcars – here and across the country – are a good use of transit dollars, especially since the city ​​plans to maintain free fares in the second year. This criticism comes not just from the usual suspects in the crowd with no rail, no path, no how, but public transport advocates and academics who argue that the light rail and buses serve commuters and other dependent people better. public transport. In contrast, the Conservatives are attacking the cost and rigid routes of streetcars and streetcars.

Joel Rast, director of the Center for Economic Development at UW-Milwaukee, calls the streetcar “a much better way to get to different parts of the city.” He questions the wisdom of spending transit money on a system that primarily serves tourists and inner-city workers instead of helping car-less urban workers access suburban jobs, a question that ‘he studied at length.

Why, then, have Milwaukee, Kenosha, and 30 other American cities built streetcar lines, nearly half of which have been opened in the past 10+ years? This is because supporters see streetcars not only as public transport vehicles, but as engines of economic development, attracting new construction, tourists and convention-goers by making it easier to get around their city centers.

Streetcars are often “more focused on growth” than on commuters, says Chris McCahill, deputy director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative at UW-Madison. Like other transportation infrastructure, streetcars do not directly initiate development, but support it by improving access, says Kevin Muhs, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. And the rails that the Conservatives scoff at for their inflexibility assure developers that access won’t evaporate as easily as a bus could be hijacked, supporters say.

The Hop’s funding reflects its purpose. Milwaukee is the only city to pay the local share of streetcar construction ($ 59 million of the original $ 128.1 million) entirely through tax-boosting funding districts designed to help development, study finds of the Wisconsin Policy Forum. However, state law excludes most sources of revenue used elsewhere, the study added, and GOP lawmakers have even restricted the use of the TIF for the streetcar.

Hop’s development ties are also manifested in their much-delayed lakefront hub project at the Couture Building and in an expansion debate in which the key words were neighborhood growth and gentrification.

If development is the mission, does The Hop accomplish it? Supporters say it’s too early to tell. City officials are reporting above-average property value growth on the route, but cannot say how much is from The Hop and how much is from a booming downtown. City development manager Dan Casanova points to new buildings on a previously stagnant stretch of Broadway, where developers have referred to the streetcar as a postman.

Barrett remains optimistic. “I’ve always promoted economic development as a big part of it,” he says. “There is no question [the benefits] are tangible and long term.


THE HOP IS NOT Milwaukee’s only transit innovation. Milwaukee County officials are planning a $ 53.4 million rapid transit line that could share transfer points with the streetcar.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is designed to mimic the light rail, with buses in reserved lanes, traffic lights favoring them, and train-like platforms where passengers pay in advance. The 9-mile line would run from the lakeside to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

Authorities in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa will allow reserved lanes on only half of the route. But Milwaukee County Transit System spokesperson Matt Sliker, Kevin Muhs of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Rob Henken of the Wisconsin Policy Forum said the BRT line would still be effective.

If federal and local authorities approve, the BRT line would begin in 2021. Passengers could proceed to The Hop at the proposed level of Vel Phillips Plaza near Wisconsin Center and at the planned lakeside stitching point, the Commissioner said. city ​​public works, Jeff Polenske.

Different tracks: trams vs. tram

“LIGHT RAIL LIGHT” So then County Executive Scott Walker and other critics rejected the Milwaukee Streetcar when Mayor Tom Barrett proposed it in 2007.

This term encapsulated how much nuance was drowned – or ignored – in the monotony of the long ideological battle. Since neither side’s arguments have changed much as the discussion has moved from light rail to modern streetcars, which look like light rail vehicles, many people may not see a light rail vehicle. difference.

Yet understanding this difference could be the key to understanding The Hop’s first year and its future. The comparison of The Hop and its streetcar siblings with their urban rail cousins, the country’s 23 light rail systems (as in Minneapolis) and 14 subway and elevated train systems (as in Chicago), illustrates how streetcars are treated more as economic tools than as public transport.

Or they will:

Each urban rail transport system connects a city’s inner-city to outlying neighborhoods. They usually run on rails separate from road traffic, and many reach airports and nearby suburbs. In contrast, most trams remain in the city center and surrounding areas. No tram serves the airports.

The Hop’s 2.1-mile start line runs from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station to the northeast corner of downtown, with a second 0.4-mile line under construction to the lakefront. The proposed expansions would take it to the Wisconsin Center, then to the Fiserv Forum, Bronzeville and Walker’s Point.

As long as they work in traffic, streetcars perform best for relatively short trips, says Kevin Muhs of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. They are not fast enough or long enough to meet the demands of airport journeys, he says.

Who straddles them:

Commuters use light rail and heavy rail lines, as do students, visitors and others. People who live near the city center can get around by tram. But in a dozen cities, including Kenosha, streetcar schedules skip the morning rush hour, bypassing commuters to target tourists and residents visiting local attractions.

The Hop is one of 20 tram lines with frequent service all day and all year round. Of the nine most recent light rail lines with comparable service and vehicles, The Hop’s average daily ridership of 2,061 for the first seven months of this year sits roughly in the middle.

Who runs them:

Each urban rail transport system is operated by a transport agency, usually the same one that operates the local buses. But bus authorities only operate about half of the tram systems, including the 19-year-old Kenosha line. Cities and nonprofits handle the rest.

In Milwaukee, the city owns The Hop and contracts with the French company Transdev to operate it. The Milwaukee County Transit System lost a late bid to operate the line, but is in talks to add real-time tracking of The Hop to its app and website, the public works commissioner said. Jeff Polenske and bus system spokesperson Matt Sliker.

Who pays for them:

Federal, state and local taxes, supplemented by tariffs, pay for the operation of urban rail transport systems. Some streetcars are funded in the same way, but commercial sponsorships and advertising often underpin operations.

A federal grant and sponsorship from the Potawatomi Bingo Casino pay most of The Hop’s $ 4.4 million annual operating costs. Riding The Hop was free for its first year, and city officials surprised Joint Council by dropping plans to start charging fares in November. Polenske says the idea is to give people more time to try The Hop and see its value.

At least seven other tram systems are free, and at least six more saw ridership drop when fares started. Yet users value convenience and safety over cost, says Chris McCahill of UW-Madison’s State Smart Transportation initiative: “Even though they’re free, people won’t use them if they don’t meet a need. “

“A Hopping Downtown” appears in the November 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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